By Michael Hofer
© 2001

Bluegrass Is Born

A new style of music evolved largely from the work of Bill Monroe. It would take him nearly a decade to accomplish this as his original band formed in 1934, in the East Chicago and Whiting Indiana area. Sucessful, appearing on the WLS Barn Dance program the band would be remade completely several times, and always successful, but when the addition of banjoist Earl Scruggs is added in late 44, Monroe strikes the formula for a new music, Bluegrass.

Bill Monroe
Bill Monroe with
Earl Scruggs
Back To Old Kentucky
William Smith Monroe born in Rosine Kentucky September 13, 1911. Born into a musical family, Bill played both guitar and mandolin at an early age. His parents both passing away while he was yet a boy he moved in with his Uncle Pendelton, a fiddle player with some local reknown. In addition to his family musical influences a local African American, Arnold Schultz a blues guitar player is also credited with influencing his musical education.
His brothers moved north to Detroit to work in the car industry and then to East Chicago Indiana to work for Sinclair Oil Refinery. When Bill was 18 he joined his brothers working for Sinclair Oil.
The depression cost everyone but Bill a job, so to supplement their income Bill his brothers Charlie and Birch, and their girlfriends formed a band and were soon hired to be part of the WLS National Barn Dance Program. When Birch was hired back into Sinclair, he dropped out of the band, Charlie and Bill worked together and began recording in 1936 under the Bluebird Label for RCA Victor. In 1938 the brothers decided to follow their own careers and Charlie kept the RCA contract and started his own band 'The Kentucky Pardners'. Bill moved to Arkansas, working for radio station KARK. He formed a band called the Kentuckians, but wasn't satisfied with them, so he moved to Atlanta and formed a new band the first group he would call "The Bluegrass Boys". Bills band first appeared on the Grand Ole Opry stage in 1939 where he performed his New Muleskinner Blues.
Although firmly established as a top rate string band, many feel the defining moment for Bill Monroes Bluegrass creation occured in late 1944, with the addition of banjoist Earl Scruggs. Earl playing in the new three fingered style ( often called Scruggs style today) gave a new hard driving addition to Bill Monroes Band there was no other band like it. This was a new music. The same year 1944 Bill rehired guitar player and singer Lester Flatt to his band as well. Many say that 45 to 47 were the greatest formulative years for this new 'Bluegrass Music"

What Is Bluegrass?

Bluegrass music has been described as "Folk Music in Overdrive". Its standard musical instrumental components are a marriage of mandolin from Italy, banjo from Africa, fiddle (violin) and upright bass from the Arab rebec the guitar from Spain, the dobro from Czechoslovakia. Much of the music is akin to English, Irish, Scottish origins, from the descendants of many English, Irish, Scottish, immigrants from the Appalachia area of the United States.
Bluegrass is a simple but complex music, simple in melody, complex in its presentation. Passionate powerful, allowing its musicians to improvise and each solo on the melody "taking a break" as its called much like jazz or folk musicians do.
The singers of bluegrass use strong harmonies, and solid chord structures, that both illuminate and compliment the accompanying instrumentation. Often fast paced and laced with intricate weavings of voicings and instruments. Its lyrical content can consist of many differant things from gospel, traditional, country, contemporary, and sometimes historical stories.
Named Bluegrass by Bill Monroe when trying to describe this new sound, after his homestate in Kentucky the Bluegrass State.

Bill Monroes list of Banjoists reveals he used alot of them, many of them went on to distinguish themselves in their own careers.

  • Dave "Stringbean" Akeman (42-45)Clawhammer style (though his main job was to supply comedy)
  • Jim Andrews (45 - tenor banjo)
  • Earl Scruggs (45-47) introducing 3 finger style to the world
  • Don Reno (48-49) Incredibly inventive. He was actually Bills first choice before Scruggs but he entered into the tail end of the war from 44 to 46.
  • Rudy Lyle (49-51, 53-54) - "He was powerful." - B. Monroe
  • James (Gar) Bowers (51)
  • Sonny Osborne (52)
  • Jim Smoak (52-53, 54) later authored one of the few banjo books with both tablature and standard music notation
  • Hubert Davis (54)
  • Jackie Phelps (54?) - Two finger banjo player
  • Noah Crase (54, 56)
  • Joe Stuart (55,57,64)
  • Don Stover (57)
  • Eddie Adcock (about 57-58) Like Reno a master of single string picking techinique
  • Joe Drumright (58,59,64)
  • Robert Lee Pennington (58,59)
  • Ted Lundy (late 50's ?)
  • Harold Streeter (late 50's?)
  • Curtis McPeake (60-61)
  • Tony Ellis (61-62)
  • Lonnie Hoppers (62)
  • David Deese (62)
  • Del McCoury (62-63, 64) Has one of the top bluegrass bands today
  • Bill Keith (63) another banjo pioneer, introduced melodic/chromatic/fiddle style to the mainstream Bluegrass world. From Boston at the time, almost certainly Monroe's first non southern banjo player.
  • Bobby Diamond (63-64?)
  • Steve Arkin (64) A second exponent of melodic style, although in his own writings he claims to have not been as adept as Bill Keith.
  • Sandy Rothman (64) Later went on to work with Jerry Garcia
  • Bill Gokey (64, maybe other times) - A lefty, plays right handed. Another Northerner, from Ogdensburg-upon-St. Lawrence, NY.
  • Don Lineberger (65) - Left handed.
  • Lamar Grier (65-67)
  • Butch Robins (67, 77-81)
  • Vic Jordan (67-68)
  • Rual Holt Yarbrough (69-70)
  • Bobby Thompson (70) One of the most inovative.
  • Earl Snead (71)
  • Jack Hicks (72-74)
  • Ben Pedigo (73)
  • James (Jim) Moratto (summer 73-74)
  • Dwight Dillman (74)
  • Bob Black (74-76)
  • Bill Holden (76-77)
  • Butch Robins (77-81, see also 67)
  • Blake Williams (81-91)
  • Dana Cupp (91-96)

    We will be taking a look at several of these banjoists later in this sojourney.

    In the mid 40s with the addition of Flatt and Scruggs, Bills Bluegrass Boys, began touring with Opry road shows, and doing weekly network radio shows on WSM . This exposure made him a household name in much of America. War time restrictions kept him from recording, but in 1946 when the restrictions were lifted he recorded several songs. Kentucky Waltz reached number three and then Footprints in the Snow reached number 5 in the US country charts. He also recorded Blue Moon of Kentucky at this time which later would become a signature piece.
    Other Bluegrass bands inspired by Monroes sucess began to spring up. The Stanley Brothers began about 1946, then in 1948 Flatt and Scruggs left Monroes band and began their own Foggy Mountain Boys Band. In 1951 Bill purchased some property at Bean Blossum, Brown County Indiana and established a park where bluegrass was promoted.
    From the late 40s a new interest in folk music began that carried well into the early 70s sparked by the civil rights movement in the south and the war in Vietnam. In 1963 Bill Monroe gave a concert at the University of Chicago Folk Festival and created great interest in the students, and soon was busily connected with bluegrass festivals. He began his own yearly Bluegrass festival in Bean Blossum in 65. Its still held yearly even today. In 69 he was made an honorary Kentucky Colonel and in 1970 was elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame. He was also inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and he gained more successes and accalades throughout his lifetime. He passed away September 9, 1996.


    Bill Monroe Commemorative Postage Stamp - Act Now!

    Would you like to see Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass Music, honored by a commemorative United States Postage Stamp? If you would, the time to act is NOW, and all you have to do is to write and mail a letter.

    Each year, the United States Postal Service considers the issuance of approximately 25 commemorative postage stamps. Under its guidelines, which you can read at: Click Here the honoree must have been deceased for at least 10 years, which in Bill Monroe's case will be September 9, 2006. The 95th anniversary of his birth, September 13, 2006, which is only 4 days later, would be a logical date for the issuance of the stamp. The guidelines further recommend that the process be started 3 years before the issuance year, which is NOW - 2003. The first step is for a citizens' committee to select, and narrow down to approximately 25, the worthy nominees for each year. This they do by considering letters, cards, petitions, etc., sent to them by the public at large. After that, the committee considers art work and other details for the stamp. Because Bill Monroe's music is appreciated World-Wide, nominations from outside the USA would be very appropriate. If you would like to participate in this effort on behalf of a great American musical genius, write your letter to:

    Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee
    c/o Stamp Development, US Postal Service
    475 L'Enfant Plaza, SW, Room 5670
    Washington, DC 20260-2437M

    Don't delay -- if we all pitch in and do our part by writing a letter, and telling our friends, Bill Monroe can receive this well-deserved recognition from the country that he loved.
    Jim Peva