The Music of Bill Monroe

Bill Monroe

album cover

The Father of Bluegrass

Isaac Stern, the great classical violinist, once said that a great musician doesn't take his music to people—he plays and the people eventually come to him. One illustration of this is Bill Monroe (1911–1996). A swift-fingered mandolinist, Monroe developed the folk songs and unassuming mountain music he heard growing up in Rosine, Kentucky, into what we now know as bluegrass. He's the one who first called it bluegrass, and the one who developed its attack, the florid fiddle lines anchored by crisp guitar and mandolin picking.

Monroe was working at an oil refinery and playing music with his brother Charlie in a string band at night, when the duo began attracting the interest of record companies. Beginning in 1936, the Monroe Brothers cut over sixty songs for RCA/Bluebird, including the splendid "What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul," but by 1938 the brothers parted ways. Bill Monroe spent the rest of his career as a solo bandleader. Though he had a reputation for being difficult, he was also a gifted teacher: His band, the Blue Grass Boys, included most of the significant figures of '50s and '60s bluegrass, including fiddler Vassar Clements, the wizardlike guitar-and-banjo duo Flatt and Scruggs (see p. 282), and singer Mac Wiseman.

Monroe recorded for decades. This anthology, produced by the Country Music Foundation, is the first to draw material from his output for Columbia, RCA, and Decca. As a result, it offers a full picture of Monroe, from the rambunctious early rambles that left listeners stunned ("Bluegrass Breakdown") to mournful ballads ("You'll Find Her Name Written There") to later works, like the tightly harmonized "I'm Going Back to Kentucky," that had rock stars like Jerry Garcia volunteering to be one of the Blue Grass Boys. The sound quality improves over the years, but little else changes. That's because Monroe didn't try to "sell" bluegrass; in the liner notes, he's quoted as saying, "I thought I'd touch the country people—the farm people—and that would be as far as it would ever get." Through musical fads and cultural tumults, Monroe played his same steady truth-telling music. And people came to him.

Genre: Country
Released: 1994, MCA
Key Tracks: "I'm Sittin' on Top of the World," "Bluegrass Breakdown," "Lonesome Moonlight Waltz," "John Henry"
Catalog Choice: Off the Record, Vol. 1: Live Recordings 1956–69
Next Stop: Flatt and Scruggs: Foggy Mountain Gospel
After That: Jerry Garcia and David Grisman: Jerry Garcia/David Grisman
Book Pages: 513–514

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Comments:

#1 from ..., Yale University, New York City - 11/26/2008 10:11

Should be mandatory listening for citizenship.

#2 from ben, Baltimore MD - 01/15/2011 12:36

Did you know that this collection has gone out of print? It is so difficult to find, that I don’t know of a good way to get it nowadays.

#3 from Tom Moon - 02/14/2011 7:12

Ben
Thanks for the headsup. I am surprised to see this has gone out of print. There are plenty of copies circulating on the used market, however. I have to believe it’ll be offered as a download eventually as well—though to be honest the accompanying booklet is a gem.

Happy exploring…

TM

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