As the youngest of six brothers (and with two sisters), Bill Monroe took up the mandolin because his older siblings had already staked their claims on his preferred choices: Harry and Birch played the fiddle, and Charlie (and sister Bertha) played the guitar. From such an unlikely beginning came one of the greatest mandolin players of all time. Other members of the family also participated in musical activities: Monroe's father was a noted dancer in the area; Monroe's mother sang and played button accordion, fiddle, and harmonica; and Monroe's uncle (his mother's brother), Pendleton Vandever, was a well known local fiddler.
Born in a small cabin on a ridge near Rosine, Kentucky, in 1911, Bill Monroe worked hard all his life.   Bluegrass music didn't exist when Monroe was born, didn't exist until he invented it. Bill Monroe didn't create bluegrass music out of thin air, of course; raised in rural Kentucky, he grew up surrounded by the music of both the white and black cultures of the region. Elements of traditional country and string band music, religious songs, and acoustic blues appear in bluegrass, but the synthesis and the drive Monroe added were his alone.
Although Bill Monroe became a legend on the mandolin, and effected a fundamental change in the way the mandolin is viewed and played by musicians around the world, he did also learn to play the guitar. In his teens (his mother died when he was ten), Monroe played guitar to accompany his Uncle Pen at local dances. It was at one of these dances that Bill Monroe met Arnold Schulz, a black musician who "whistled the blues" and played guitar and fiddle. Subsequently, Monroe also accompanied Schultz at dances. After Bill Monroe's father died (when the young musician was sixteen), the orphaned Monroe lived with his Uncle Pen for a couple of years before moving north to work at an oil refinery.
Monroe had followed his brothers north to the refineries, and they continued to play music together for parties and dances in the five years he worked at the refinery. In 1932, a representative of the popular WLS Barn Dance radio show hired the Monroe brothers (Charlie, Birch, & Bill) and their friend Larry Moore to dance in a "Barn Dance Tour" throughout the northern MidWest, a job that continued for two years. In 1934, Charlie Monroe was offered a regular job performing on a radio station in Shenandoah, Iowa. Charlie took his younger brother with him, leading Bill to leave his job at the refinery and begin his career as a full-time professional musician. This marked the beginning of Bill and Charlie as The Monroe Brothers, an act that became popular throughout the MidWest and the South. The brothers continued with the same sponsor who had taken them to Iowa for about two years, working regular radio jobs in Nebraska and later in North and South Carolina. In 1936, while still at WBT in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Brothers acquired a new and larger sponsor. In that same year, they made the first of their RCA Bluebird recordings.
Bill Monroe and his brother Charlie were both strong-willed and ambitious men, so perhaps it was inevitable that they would separate. A conflict over a woman provided the catalyst that split up The Monroe Brothers in 1938. Charlie continued to perform old time country songs in the Carolinas, where his popularity endured for many years. Bill Monroe moved briefly to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he formed a band he called "The Kentuckians". Apparently, he thought the situation in Little Rock a dead-end, because he moved to Atlanta, Georgia, after only three months. In Atlanta, (Bill) Monroe hired musicians and formed his "Blue Grass Boys", the instrumentation consisting of fiddle, guitar, and jug, in addition to his mandolin. With this band, Monroe spent most of a year in the Carolinas, where he replaced the jug with a string bass. From the beginning, this group had Bill Monroe's distinctive sound, the sound that came to be known as bluegrass.
In October of 1939, Bill Monroe auditioned for and was hired by the Grand Ole Opry on WSM in Nashville, Tennessee. He remained a star of the Opry for the rest of his life and was for long periods one of the most popular Opry performers. While performing with his brother Charlie in the Carolinas, Bill Monroe had heard the three-finger banjo style of Snuffy Jenkins, a sound which was to contribute much to the classic bluegrass style. When Monroe finally added a banjo to the group (1942), however, he chose "Stringbean" (David Akeman) primarily for his skill as a comedian (or perhaps as a baseball player). It was not until 1946 that Monroe replaced Stringbean with Earl Scruggs. That change created the band that initiated the classic period of bluegrass music.
The Blue Grass Boys of the late '40s have become legendary. Bill Monroe hired Lester Flatt, who had been working as a member of Charlie Monroe's band. The legend says that Flatt then suggested his friend Earl Scruggs as banjo player for the Blue Grass Boys. The rest is both legend and history.
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Notes1. The cabin no longer exists (although the site was still visible in the 1970s); it stood beside a road (long abandoned by the 1960s) on a "knee" of a hill rising south and east from Rosine. A little further up the hill, stood the somewhat larger house (still in remarkably good repair thirty years ago) where Bill Monroe lived until his father died. The ridge on which the cabin and house stood provided the name for a haunting bluegrass instrumental Bill Monroe composed in 1975, "Jerusalem Ridge".
2. Bill Monroe did learn to play the guitar. On the Blue Grass Boys original recording of "Muleskinner Blues", he played guitar. He also played guitar on "Muleskinner..." (and other songs) on stage, including the Grand Ole Opry, in the early years of the Blue Grass Boys. More about Bill Monroe on guitar.
3. Melissa Vanderver married Buck (James Buchanan) Monroe; Bill (William Smith) Monroe was the last of their eight children. Melissa Monroe's brother, Bill's uncle, Pendleton Vanderver played fiddle for dances in the Rosine area. As a teenager, Bill Monroe accompanied his Uncle Pen on guitar at these dances. In 1950 Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys (with Jimmy Martin on guitar) recorded Monroe's tribute to his uncle. "Uncle Pen" went on to become one of the classic bluegrass songs.
4. In the early days of Bill Monroe's solo (i.e., with his Blue Grass Boys) career, his tour appearances consisted of much more than just his powerful music. Comedy routines were an important part of this broader entertainment package. For several years, the Blue Grass Boys tours included a baseball team. Before their shows, the team (which usually included Monroe and other members of the band) would play the local semi-pro team in an exhibition game.
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The California State Bluegrass Federation named "Bill Monroe on the Radio" its Album of the Year for 1988.
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