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William Smith Monroe (September 13, 1911 -- September 9, 1996) was an
American musician who helped develop the style of music known as bluegrass,
which takes its name from his band, the "Blue Grass Boys," named for Monroe's
home state of Kentucky. Monroe's performing career spanned 60 years as a
singer, instrumentalist, composer and bandleader. He is often referred to as The
Father of Bluegrass.
Monroe was born on his family's farm near Rosine, Kentucky, the youngest of
eight children of James Buchanan "Buck" Monroe and Malissa Vandiver Monroe.
Malissa and her brother, Pendleton "Pen" Vandiver, were both musically inclined,
and Monroe and his siblings grew up playing and singing music in the home.
Because his older brothers Birch and Charlie had already laid claim to the fiddle
and guitar, respectively, young Bill was left with the smaller and less desirable
mandolin during family picking sessions. Monroe later recalled that his brothers
insisted that he remove four of the eight strings from the instrument so that he
would not play too loudly.
Monroe's mother died when he was ten years old, followed by his father six years
later. Because his siblings had moved away from Rosine, Monroe lived for about
two years with his uncle Pen Vandiver, often accompanying him when Vandiver
played the fiddle at local dances. This experience later inspired one of Monroe's
most famous compositions, "Uncle Pen," recorded in 1950; on a 1972 album, Bill
Monroe's Uncle Pen, Monroe recorded a number of traditional fiddle tunes often
performed by Vandiver. Uncle Pen Vandiver has been credited with giving
Monroe "a repertoire of tunes that sank into Bill's aurally trained memory and a
sense of rhythm that seeped into his bones. Another influence in Monroe's
musical life was a black musician named Arnold Shultz who introduced Monroe to
In 1929, Monroe moved to Indiana to work at an oil refinery with his brothers
Birch and Charlie. Together with a friend Larry Moore, they formed a musical
group, the Monroe Brothers, to play at local dances and house parties. Birch
Monroe and Larry Moore soon left the group, and Bill and Charlie carried on as
a duo, eventually winning spots performing live on radio stations— first in
Indiana and then, sponsored by Texas Crystals, on several radio broadcasts in
Iowa, Nebraska, South Carolina and North Carolina 1934 to 1936. RCA Victor
signed the Monroe Brothers to a recording contract in 1936. They scored an
immediate hit single with the gospel song "What Would You Give In Exchange
For Your Soul?" and ultimately recorded 60 tracks for Victor's Bluebird label
between 1936 and 1938.
After the Monroe Brothers disbanded in 1938, Bill Monroe formed The
Kentuckians in Little Rock, Arkansas, but the group only lasted for three months.
Monroe then left Little Rock for Atlanta, Georgia, to form the first edition of the
Blue Grass Boys with singer/guitarist Cleo Davis, fiddler Art Wooten, and bassist
Amos Garren. In October 1939, he successfully auditioned for a regular spot on
the Grand Ole Opry, impressing Opry founder George D. Hay with his energetic
performance of Jimmie Rodgers's "Mule Skinner Blues". Monroe recorded that
song, along with seven others, at his first solo recording session for RCA Victor
in 1940; by this time, the Blue Grass Boys consisted of singer/guitarist Clyde
Moody, fiddler Tommy Magness, and bassist Bill Wesbrooks.
While the fast tempos and instrumental virtuosity characteristic of bluegrass
music are apparent even on these early tracks, Monroe was still experimenting
with the sound of his group. He seldom sang lead vocals on his Victor
recordings, often preferring to contribute high tenor harmonies as he had in the
Monroe Brothers. A 1945 session for Columbia Records featured an accordion,
soon dropped from the band. Most importantly, while Monroe added banjo player
David "'Stringbean" Akeman to the Blue Grass Boys in 1942, Akeman played the
instrument in a relatively primitive style and was rarely featured in instrumental
solos. Monroe's pre-1946 recordings represent a transitional style between the
string-band tradition from which he came and the musical innovation to follow.