Bill Monroe

TrackFirst recording
Blue Moon Of KentuckyColumbia 20370 (1946)
RawhideDecca 46392 (1952)
Orange Blossom SpecialBluebird Bb 8893 (1941)
I Saw The LightI Saw The Light (1959)
Mule Skinner BluesBluebird Bb 8568 (1940)
Rocky Road BluesColumbia 20013 (1945)
Uncle PenDecca 46283 (1950)
Long Black VeilKentucky Bluegrass (1970)
Cry, Cry Darlin'Knee Deep In Bluegrass (1958)
Molly and TenbrooksColumbia 20612 (1948)

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm

 

Contributor: David Lewis

It really is as simple as no Monroe, no Elvis. No Johnny Cash. No Dylan. Or maybe not ‘no’, but vastly different and somewhat lesser. William Smith Monroe, the lonely, proud man who is the only person to whom an actual genre can be traced. The man who made the mandolin a lead instrument, in fact an alpha males instrument. The man who wrote songs which continue to inspire. In Richard D Smith’s recent excellent, but controversial biography, Monroe is placed as the musical equal of Armstrong, of Gershwin, of Copland. None of those invented a genre, of course. Monroe did. And it was a good one.

Bluegrass: named, almost accidentally after the Kentucky national plant. Monroe led, for 60 years, the Bluegrass Boys. Like other great band leaders, he was a business disaster: he couldn’t manage money, time or people very well. Monroe feuds were legendary. Rarely violent, they were characterised by stony, cold silences. The drive in his life was represented in the singular drive in the music. He recorded 120 songs, nearly all of which were definitive bluegrass statements. The classic lineup of the band, with banjo virtuoso Earl Scruggs and guitarist and vocalist Lester Flatt, only lasted two years. Flat and Scruggs went on to their own fame, outselling and out-touring Monroe. Nonetheless, Monroe set the paradigm; acoustic music, the high lonesome voice (a fifth or a third above the melody note, but a quarter-tone sharp), the driving rhythm, no drums. And the mandolin.

He spent many years in the outer of music, but was essentially rediscovered in the 1960s. He died in 1996, an acknowledged innovator and genius. Bluegrass bands today question if ‘Mr Monroe’ would approve. Deviations are met with, at best, scepticism. At worst … Towards the end of his life, Monroe relaxed, and mentored and enjoyed the company of younger players who previously he would have seen as competition. Many later prominent musicians were Bluegrass Boys. Fiddler Kenny Baker bought a new and dynamic approach to how bluegrass fiddle was played. Peter Rowan, one of today’s finest bluegrass players, sang with Monroe for a time. Del McCoury was another fine singer who is one of today’s best. Bill Keith’s tenure gave Monroe the chance to show Scruggs that he could still hire cutting edge banjoists. And many more.

A lot of the sound comes from the chop, that rhythmic approach that, in Monroe’s hands, makes the mandolin sound like a snare drum. The mandolin itself is a Lloyd Loar designed Gibson F5. These now are sold for the 1/2 million mark, and Monroe’s, an instrument as famous as Willie Nelson’s Trigger, is on display where few can touch.

So, to the songs:

Blue Moon Of Kentucky – Until the cheques rolled in, Monroe hated what Elvis did to one of his finest compositions. He re-recorded it several times after: always starting it as the 3/4 waltz he’d originally written it as, then taking on Presley’s own version.

Rawhide – Not the television theme song, a mandolin tour de force. Sam Bush (one of Monroe’s greatest acolytes) has said if you can’t play it, you can’t play mandolin.

Orange Blossom Special – Until Charlie Daniels’ Devil Went Down To Georgia this was the fiddle tune that you needed to learn if you wanted to be taken seriously as a fiddler.

I Saw The Light – Hank Williams’ regret-filled lament (always sounded to me as a Sunday morning lament after a wild Saturday night) gets the good old boy treatment. The joy in the lyric is writ large. Monroe and Williams knew each other and liked each other. Whereas Monroe was abstemious (except with women), Hank … wasn’t. Great harmonies, and boundless joy.

Mule Skinner Blues – Before this, Bill was just another mandolin playing country star. After this, he was the founder of bluegrass.

Rocky Road Blues – The rhythm. The melody. Years before Shake Rattle And Roll, there it is.

Uncle Pen – Monroe’s paean to his beloved uncle has it all. Great harmonies, marvellous fiddle, and a wonderful solo. Pendleton Vandiver, his mother’s brother, taught Bill nearly all he knew about music. Pen was a fiddler but Monroe’s approach was tied up in how Pen did it.

Long Black Veil – Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Cash, The Band. A great artist can take a great song and transform it. Monroe gives it the old high lonesome … and, boy, does it work.

Cry, Cry Darlin’ – Just listen to it. Heartbreaking, emotive and beautifully sung and played.

Molly and Tenbrooks – Hello Mr Scruggs and Mr Flatt. Here’s where the sound finally coalesces. Scruggs didn’t invent the style he is named after, but he was unmatched in approach. It wasn’t until the next generation that players like Tony Trischka, J D Crowe, Butch Robins and others would start to approach Earl. This track was actually pipped at the post by the Stanley Brothers, who released it before Monroe. Monroe was furious, but it showed that the music he invented had appeal, not only to audiences, but to other performers.

Bill Monroe is a towering figure. The only person in the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Bluegrass, that amalgam of old time, country and jazz remains a potent force in music.

Bill Monroe biography (iTunes)

David Lewis’s website – History, Mystery, Music and Pop

TopperPost #174

2 Comments

  1. Andrew Shields
    Jan 22, 2014

    Very good list….

    By coincidence, was listening to a fine version of ‘Uncle Pen’ on the recent Jimmie Dale Gilmore & The Wronglers cd earlier today…

  2. Ilkka Jauramo
    Feb 12, 2014

    Starting ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’ in 3/4 country waltz and continuing in Elvis version is a very dynamic “trick”. I like it.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

↓