Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass
Bill Monroe, the "Father of Bluegrass", would have turned 100 today. We're remembering his musical career – it's a seminal one, as he's one of the only musicians who could say he created an entire genre almost single-handedly.
Born in Kentucky – the Bluegrass State, of course (named for the vegetation, not the music) – Monroe grew up playing music and singing with his family. As the youngest child, he didn't get his first choice of instruments: the desirable fiddle and guitar were already taken by older brothers Birch and Charlie, so Bill took up the mandolin. In the end, it was a wise choice, leading to his development of a unique musical style.
Monroe and his brothers formed the Monroe Brothers band, and he was barely out of his teens when they were playing radio spots and landing a record deal with RCA Victor. In 1939, he started a new band – the Blue Grass Boys. It was with this group that Monroe would innovate, moving from old-time country music to the fast tempos, instrumental solo breakdowns, and tight vocal harmonies that would come to be known as bluegrass.
The Blue Grass Boys became a fixture on the Grand Ole Opry and their songs raced up the singles charts, becoming instant classics. Their sound practically defined country music in the 1940s and '50s. As tastes changed and the Nashville Sound took over in the late '50s, Monroe was no longer at the forefront of the genre, but his band never stopped playing and were poised for new success in the folk revival of the 1960s. They gained a new audience of younger fans, who were devoted enough to keep Monroe in their hearts and on their playlists even as pop culture moved on to psychedelia.
Monroe was still playing live music – and doing it well – into his 80s. And all the while, he and his Blue Grass Boys were influencing other musicians from Bela Fleck to Dolly Parton to Jerry Garcia. Today, bluegrass music might not be the sensation it was in the 1950s, but it's a respected genre that continues to innovate and gain new fans and musicians. They owe a lot to Bill Monroe, who proved time and again how you could tear up a stage with just a little mandolin.
Written by Linnea Crowther