In the late 1930s there were strong currents flowing in country music. Most were moving the sound away from the Appalachian Mountains and the authentic hillbilly sound. Cowboy music featured Gene Autry, Western Swing was being popularized by Bob Wills, and the Blue Yodels of Jimmie Rodgers were already becoming country classics. The geographical shift was away from Tennessee and Kentucky to the states of Texas, Oklahoma and California.
But the heart of country, hillbilly music, was still being produced and performed by dozens of fiddle players and banjo pickers and guitar strummers in the rural areas of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Although Bob Wills had “jazzified” the string band into the western swing hybrid, the original string bands were still as popular in 1938 as they had been thirty years before.
It took the genius of a fiddler/mandolin player/singer/ songwriter by the name of Bill Monroe to elevate the hillbilly string band to the level of national appreciation.
When, in the study of music or art history, a person is given the nickname of “Father of” something, it generally is understood that that person played a significant role in the early development of an idea, style or technique. To say that Louis Armstrong, for instance, is considered by most to be the Father of Modern Jazz, doesn’t mean to infer that Armstrong invented jazz, but rather that he was the most important artist in solidifying the concepts of improvisation, rhythmic freedom and instrumental artistry which had been explored by those who preceded him. In very few instances, can we truly call someone the “Father” or “Beginning Point” of a type or style of literature, art or music. In the case of the nickname Father of Bluegrass, however, it is completely and deservedly placed upon Bill Monroe.
Bill Monroe was born in Central Kentucky in 1911. He learned to play the mandolin and then the fiddle from family members. With his brother, Charlie, on the guitar, Bill, on the mandolin traveled to Chicago and Detroit in his late teens to make his path as a musician. For a while the brothers appeared on the WSL Barn Dance in Chicago and then on other radio stations in Illinois, Indiana and North Carolina. After cutting 60 songs with Victor Records, but seeing no success together, the brothers split and formed separate bands in 1938.
It was about this time that Bill, with his new string band called the Blue Grass Boys (after the famous blue grass of Kentucky), began to experiment with a faster, more high-energy type of string playing. The fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar makeup of the band allowed for each of the instruments to alternate between rapid melodies and supporting harmonies. It was here, too, that the songs began to speed up, creating almost breakneck tempos for the soloists.
By 1945 Monroe had refined the concept, recruited two of the best pickers in bluegrass history and formed the first true bluegrass band. To Monroe’s mandolin were added the guitar of Lester Flatt, the banjo of Earl Scruggs, a fiddle and string bass. For three years, Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys were to achieve national attention on the Grand Ole Opry.
Flatt and Scruggs left the Blue Grass Boys in ’48 to form their own band, the Foggy Mountain Boys. In the years to follow, they were to become widely accepted as the two finest bluegrass pickers in country music history. Their most notable success came when they provided the theme music for the 1960’s television program “The Beverly Hillbillys.”
Throughout the ’50s Monroe continued to perform and set the standard for the style of country music he invented. By 1950 the sound of the frantic fiddles, banjos and guitars were widely known as “bluegrass,” although some called it “old time hillbilly” as if it had been in existence for a century. Other bluegrass groups like the Osborne Brothers and the Stanley Brothers helped Monroe build bluegrass’ popularity into the 1960s.
The folk revival in the early ’60s was an opportunity for Flatt & Scruggs and other bluegrass acoustic instrumentalists to appear before a new audience at the Newport Folk Festival. Soon after, musical festivals specifically geared to present bluegrass to a new generation. Monroe started his own bluegrass festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana in 1967. A new, younger group of instrumental virtuosi were crafting what was temporarily called “newgrass.”
During the ’60s and ’70s, television programs like “The Hillbillys,” “Petticoat Junction,” “Green Acres” and movies like “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Deliverance” all kept the sound of bluegrass in the ears of the American public. In the late ’60s, “Hee Haw” joined the Grand Ole Opry television show in presenting bluegrass, traditional, and newer styles of country music.
Most people identify bluegrass as a style of country music built around rapid acoustic string instrument solos that require a high degree of virtuosity. While this is true, occasionally bluegrass songs will contain vocal solos embedded in the middle of the frantic musical freeway. There also exists, though less familiar, the slower, vocal bluegrass ballad. Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” is an example of the laid-back bluegrass ballad song. As a singer and yodeler, Bill Monroe’s high, strident straight tone created almost a haunting sound. It has been called the “high, lonesome sound” of bluegrass.
Bluegrass singers typically have a twangy, somewhat nasal tone, suitable for cutting through the musical activity. Like the fiddle or banjo sliding into the pitch, the bluegrass singer will lean heavily on the note below the intended note and create a deliberate and measured slide into the pitch. When two or three singers harmonize, the result is similar to two or three fiddle strings sliding simultaneously upwards into the chord. The vocal harmonies created by Monroe and other bluegrass singers seem to be a direct influence of the mountain sound of the Carter Family.
The bluegrass sound of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and others is still evident in country music today. Bluegrass artists like Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs and groups like Northern Lights (a newgrass band from New England) keep the style vibrant and alive. It is not uncommon for a contemporary country artist such as Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks or Vince Gill to have bluegrass instrumentals as part of their albums.
Barely 70 years old, bluegrass still holds a unique place in the repertoire of American country music. Bill Monroe’s child is alive and healthy in America and around the world.