Obituary: Bill Monroe

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Though he was known as "the father of bluegrass music", Bill Monroe, who died on Monday only days before his 85th birthday, did not invent the genre. But like the moment when Louis Armstrong let rip on "West End Blues" and "invented" the jazz solo, or when Charlie Christian plugged in his guitar and started playing like a horn, Monroe's 1936 Bluebird recordings marked a cusp, a qualitative change when so many strands, from the high lonesome sound of solo singers like Roscoe Holcomb, Clarence Ashley and Buell Kazee to the jazzy, offbeat strum of Monroe's own mandolin chording, came together to create something entirely new, and yet entirely rooted in its past.

Like so much white popular music of the pre-rock years, bluegrass owed as much to black influences as to the Anglo-American tradition, and Monroe had fond memories of "woodshedding" with a black fellow Kentuckian, the guitarist Arnold Schultz. He didn't write a song about him, though, as he did for his uncle, the fiddler Pen Vandiver, immortalised in a lyric which celebrated family music-making, with each member's voice singing the high and low lines as appropriate, in the style which became as much of a bluegrass hallmark as the guitar, mandolin and fiddle front-line melodies, the instrumentalists stepping forward to the mike to take their solos as required, but always interplaying with a synergy reminiscent of a New Orleans trumpet, clarinet and trombone line-up.

He was born in 1911 on a farm in western Kentucky near the town of Rosine (population 400). He and his five brothers and two sisters picked up on their musical traditions from the fiddle-playing and ballad-singing of their mother, though it was his brothers Birch and Charlie who first took up playing semi-professionally, having gone north to Chicago in search of work during the Depression.

All three began playing together and after touring with the seminal WLS Barn Dance roadshow, they began broadcasting from station WWAE, in Hammond, Indiana, in 1930. Birch decided to concentrate on his non-musical work in the oil refineries, but after moving to the Carolinas Bill and Charlie landed a contract with RCA Victor's Bluebird label, recording songs that ranged from their debut sacred single, which Bill had learnt in church when he was he was just 14, "What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul?", to "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms" and the black-originated "Nine Pound Hammer".

In 1938 the two brothers separated, Charlie to start up a trio which blossomed into the Kentucky Pardners band, Bill to begin the first of many Blue Grass Boys (the separation of the first two words in the name was important to him), initially with the guitarist Cleo Davis, the bassist Amos Garin, and the fiddler Art Wooten. In 1942 he added David "Stringbean" Akeman on banjo, though not a player in the florid, heavily accented style favoured by the famous Earl Scruggs, who joined him in 1945. It was this line-up, with Lester Flatt on guitar, Chubby Wise (fiddle), and Howard "Cedric Rainwater" Watts (bass), which defined the sound of what is seen now as "classic" bluegrass, and it sounded that way throughout countless personnel changes.

Over the years, Monroe attracted the cream of country musicians and singers, most notably his old rival Carter Stanley, when Flatt and Scruggs went on to fame as a duo in their own right, but also including the younger generation who had been inspired by his example, like the fiddler Richard Greene, the banjoist Bill Keith, and the guitarist Peter Rowan.

Another young man to be inspired by him was a young truckdriver by the name of Elvis Presley, who made an upbeat version of Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" into one of his first singles, which he sang at his debut at WSM's Grand Ole Opry, where Monroe had been a mainstay since October 1939.

Monroe's music had a third incarnation as part of the post-war American folk revival, where those college kids unable, or unwilling, to identify with Bob Dylan's protesting growl found the foot-tapping insistence and high tenor harmonies of bluegrass more to their taste, though the left- led revival was something of a strange environment for this rather stiff Southern gentleman to find himself. The folklorist Ralph Rinzler - no mean mandolin player himself - took the band under his wing, wrote scholarly sleevenotes to their albums, and gave them the sort of respectability the revivalists wouldn't concede to a mere "pop" musician, which of course is what he was.

Surprisingly, when so many of the younger, bluegrass-inspired musicians made it their business to be seen around Soho and Cambridge, Monroe didn't come over to Britain for a long time, but then appeared regularly at Wembley country music festivals, amid the spangles and rhinestones that had become as much a part of the trappings of country as long hair and jeans were of folk. I met him on one of these occasions, and he was remarkably patient when asked questions he must have answered a thousand times before, though assuming, wrongly, that my tape recorder meant I represented some UK radio station, wishing my listeners good luck in conclusion, professional to the last.

With a score of awards as long as your arm - starting with his well-deserved entry to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 - he had changed the sound, not only of country music, but of popular music throughout the world (he had lots of fans in Japan). He never set out to be a pioneer. But that's often the way with true pioneers.

Karl Dallas

William Smith Monroe, singer, songwriter, mandolin player: born Rosine, Kentucky 13 September 1911; twice married (one son); died Nashville, Tennessee 9 September 1996.

Comments