William Smith "Bill" Monroe, 1911-1996 - American Music Great
The single most influential figure in bluegrass history, Bill Monroe almost singlehandedly invented the genre. A mandolin virtuoso, Monroe did for his intrument what Earl Scruggs would later do for the banjo, transforming what was originally a rhythm instrument into a premere lead soloing instrument.
It was Bill Monroe who first popularized a new genre of music in the 30s and 40s that sythesized old folk songs, spirituals, blues tunes, and backcountry favorites with a new upbeat tempo, vocal harmonizing, and a standard set of instruments highlighting the banjo, mandolin, and fiddle and backed up by guitar, dobro, and base fiddle. Radio DJs began calling this music, which soon produced many imitators, "bluegrass" music after the name of Monroe's band, "The Blue Grass Boys."
William Smith Monroe was born in Rosine, Kentucky on September 13, 1911, on a remote family farm. Music was an important part of life in Bill's hometown. Traveling music teachers would often come through and give music lessons using the traditional "shape note" method. Bill's poor eyesight hampered his ability to read music, but it strengthened his ears, and he developed a keen ear for pitch and harmony from an early age.
Bill's family was very musically inclined. His mother played both accordion and fiddle and his uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, was a local fiddler of no small repute. "Uncle Pen" in particular was a strong inspiration, helping Bill overcome his great shyness by inviting the young man up to the stage to play with him at community dances. Another important influence on Bill's music was a local African-American rail worker, Arnold Shultz, who played both fiddle and guitar. Bill would later say that Arnold "played the blues like no other man could."
In the early 30s, Bill and his brothers Charlie (guitar) and Birch (fiddle) left home for Chicago to try their luck as professional musicians. They had moderate success, and by 1936 Bill and Charlie were recording records together as "The Monroe Brothers." Then, in 1938, Bill organized his own band, "The Blue Grass Boys," and the bluegrass genre was born.
Bill Monroe's influence on bluegrass and on music in general has been powerful and lasting. Not only did he create the entire bluegrass genre and revolutionize the mandolin, but he composed countless bluegrass standards, many of which have migrated to the mainstream (His themesong, "Blue Moon of Kentucky," was famously recorded by Elvis). He also pioneered the stark and mournful style of singing so different from the warm crooning of popular country that still dominates bluegrass to this day. In addition, an incredible number of bluegrass greats learned at his feet as members of the Blue Grass Boys before striking out on their own, most notably bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
Although Monroe is quite well-known in bluegrass circles, where he is revered as the "father of bluegrass," he is probably not as famous as he should be. While Flatt and Scruggs were media darlings of sorts - well mangaged, amiable, and willing to go mainstream to record for the movie Bonnie and Clyde and the TV show Beverly Hillbillies, Bill Monroe's natural shyness led him to eschew interviews and stay away from the bigger folk festivals. Although warm and personable at small gatherings, in front of large crowds he became cold and laconic, and he always prefered preforming live to recording albums. Thus Monroe was not as marketable as many of his protoges, and had to take a back seat in the media circus that Nashville was becoming to lesser musicians who put on a better public face. But he was the man behind it all, and the people who really counted knew it.
Major recognition came at last in the 70s and 80s when people began to realize that Monroe was a national treasure who might not be around much longer. He was elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1970 and on August 13, 1986, one day before his 75th birthday, the US Senate passed a resolution recognizing "his many contributions to American culture and his many ways of helping American people enjoy themselves." It also stated that "as a musician, showman, composer, and teacher, Mr. Monroe has been a cultural figure and force of signal importance in our time." Monroe died on September 9, 1996.