Ten essential Bill Monroe facts on the 101st birthday of the father of bluegrass
It's said that it was a sweltering early autumn day in Rosine, Kentucky when a neighbor found Malissa Vandiver Monroe in her yard, strumming away furiously on her mandolin under the shade of a tree. Malissa was very, very pregnant with her eighth and last child, a boy who would be born on September 13, 1911. She and her husband would name him William Smith Monroe, he later would be Bill, and that boy would grow to become the man known worldwide as the Father of Bluegrass.
Bill Monroe passed away following a stroke in 1996, but he would have been 101 today. His influence is still felt keenly in bluegrass, country, Americana and rock. 101 is a lot of years, but here are ten facts to know and share about the Father of Bluegrass on the occasion of his big ol' birthday.
10. Rosine, Kentucky
It's no coincidence that Bill became a musician. Born on a farm in rural Kentucky, his father Buck was a well-known step-dancer, in addition to being a successful farmer and businessman. His mother Malissa had mastered the fiddle, accordion and harmonica, and used to sing old songs to her kids. Bill was a quiet child who was teased for being cross-eyed, and spent much of his youth reflecting on the visual - and aural - landscape around him, including Jerusalem Ridge, which he would later call "the most beautiful place in the world."
By the way, you can visit that very spot where he was born today, a tree still standing at Bill Monroe's homeplace near Jerusalem Ridge in the Western Coal Fields region of Kentucky. When its grounds aren't occupied by bluegrass fans, when the place is totally empty, something in it still sings, when all you can hear is the wind through the leaves, the birds and bugs in the trees. It's hallowed ground, no doubt about it, and it's no stretch to imagine the sound of Uncle Pen's fiddle from over yonder.
9. Kentucky Colonel
Yes, if you play bluegrass well enough or fry up your chicken good enough, Kentucky's governor will officially bestow you with the title of Colonel. Bill achieved this honor in 1966, but unlike Harland Sanders' own 1935 Colonel-ization, the name "Colonel Monroe" just never really stuck.
8. "That ain't no part of nothin'."
A new one to add to your diss vocab: this is the phrase Bill was known to utter when considering something he didn't deem true enough to the bluegrass form.
7. Musical Mentor
Somewhere around 150 musicians served under Monroe's tutelage during the nearly 60-year tenure of his Blue Grass Boys. Just a few who benefited from his patronage: Lester Flatt, Carter Stanley, Mac Wiseman, Earl Scruggs, Del McCoury, "Stringbean" Akeman, Vasser Clements, Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs.
6. Mandolin, front and center
Long before Ira Louvin was smashing mandolins onstage like a rockstar, Bill Monroe made this tiny little high-stringed instrument cool. At the age of nine, Bill learned how to play the mandolin simply because none of the other kids in the family knew how to play it. Or perhaps they just didn't want to know how to play it. Mandolin's kinda like the clarinet, like that. In any case, Monroe gave that little ol' mandolin a leading role in his Blue Grass Boys.
5. Uncle Pen
Bill's mother was in her 40s when he was born, and died when he was just ten. By the time he was 16, his father had also passed. At that point, he was sent to live with his mother's brother, his Uncle Pen, and as Bill said years later, "Maybe if I hadn't heard him, I'd never have learned anything about music at all." James Pendleton "Uncle Pen" Vandiver was well known locally as a fiddler, and he and Bill played together at dances. But Uncle Pen wouldn't gain world renown until Bill would record a song in his honor, now a bluegrass standard.
4. Kentucky stubborn
A regional superstar by the 1930s and nationally famous by the 1940s and early '50s, Monroe's appeal slipped as rock began to rule the airwaves, and country developed more polish and sheen. This country boy refused to reinvent his music to broaden his mainstream appeal, and was nearly forgotten for a period of time until the folk revival of the 1960s earned him recognition first as a cult hero, and eventually, as the Father of Bluegrass.
3. Triple threat
Bill Monroe is likely one of the only musicians who will ever appear in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Unless, of course, officials in all of the above get a wild hair and decide to induct the likes of, say, Trampled by Turtles. But, as Bill may have said, "That ain't no part of nothin'." Bill's other honors include inductions into the Nashville Songwriters Association International Hall of Fame and the Bluegrass Hall of Honor, as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the National Medal of the Arts.
2. On being "high lonesome"
"I was brought up the best way that I could be brought up with what we had to do with," Monroe reflected on his childhood. "I could have had a better education, and I could have had better clothes to wear to school. I could have had a better chance, you know. But if I'd had the best education in the world, I might have not played music." It's said Bill didn't often open up and wasn't known for being incredibly articulate, but that when he did speak, he usually said something tremendously profound. Biographers have noted that between the deaths of his parents, being the youngest and being teased for his vision problems, Monroe's childhood pain came out in his music.
Del McCoury has said that when he joined Monroe's band in the 1960s and was tasked with singing the autobiographical song "Memories of Mother and Dad," he couldn't quite get the lyrics right. So Monroe took him home. "We stopped in at Rosine, and he took me there to those tombstones, and he said, 'Now I want you to read what's on those tombstones there.' And so I read it - on Mother's, 'Gone, but not forgotten.' And on Dad's, 'We'll meet again someday.' That's what it said," says McCoury. "A lot of his songs were true life... and they meant a lot to him."
1. On bluegrass
Many have tried to imitate the sound, but it seems few outside this region, this time, this way of life really get bluegrass. Those who do may have taken to heart Monroe's description of the form, which is about as apt a summary as we've ever heard: "It's got a hard drive to it. It's Scotch bagpipes and old-time fiddlin'. It's Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It's blues and jazz and it has a high lonesome sound. It's plain music that tells a story. It's played from my heart to your heart, and it will touch you."
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