Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys Define Bluegrass Music

The innovative playing style of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys led to the development of a new musical genre, bluegrass, which combines the “high lonesome” sound of Appalachian vocal performance with blistering speed in instrumentals.

Summary of Event

In October of 1939, George D. “Judge” Hay, Hay, George D. the creator and producer of The Grand Ole Opry, Grand Ole Opry, The (radio program) invited Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys to audition for a spot on the prestigious radio broadcast. Although Monroe lacked the experience and name recognition of such Opry stars as Roy Acuff, he was confident that his Blue Grass Boys Blue Grass Boys were ready for the task. His opinion was proved correct, when, at the conclusion of the band’s audition, the Opry’s representatives, Judge Hay and David Stone, offered Monroe what was in essence a lifetime appointment to the Opry’s slate of performers. [kw]Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys Define Bluegrass Music (1939-1949)
[kw]Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys Define Bluegrass Music, Bill (1939-1949)
[kw]Bluegrass Music, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys Define (1939-1949)
[kw]Music, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys Define Bluegrass (1939-1949)
Bluegrass music
Blue Grass Boys
[g]United States;1939-1949: Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys Define Bluegrass Music[09930]
[c]Music;1939-1949: Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys Define Bluegrass Music[09930]
Monroe, Bill
Monroe, Charlie
Flatt, Lester
Scruggs, Earl

Insight into the unique Monroe sound is best obtained by examining one of the audition numbers performed by the Blue Grass Boys, “Mule Skinner Blues.” “Mule Skinner Blues” (Rodgers, J.)[Mule Skinner Blues] This popular Jimmie Rodgers song, which became one of Monroe’s top showpieces, provides excellent commentary on the innovator’s musical ingenuity. Monroe took Rodgers’s newfangled “blue yodel” and rhythmically reshaped it by increasing the tempo to a fiery speed and significantly elevating the vocal pitch to fit his high tenor voice. In short, Bill Monroe fused a popular hillbilly song with the older string-band sound, and in the process, he created a new style of music.

After his successful audition for Judge Hay, Monroe selected “Mule Skinner Blues” as his inaugural piece for The Grand Ole Opry. According to observers, when the curtain went up, the audience and Opry regulars alike, including stars such as Roy Acuff, Uncle Dave Macon, and Pee Wee King, were awed by the furious tempo of the Blue Grass Boys. Band member Cleo Davis Davis, Cleo later observed that the audience “couldn’t think as fast as we played.”

Without question, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys were perceived by their contemporaries as being new, unique, and exciting, but it would be erroneous to credit any single individual with having been the inventor of a genre of music. Does Bill Monroe merit the title “father of bluegrass music”? Yes, but the story is complex, and there were several plateaus and numerous personages involved in the evolution of the music. The Monroe Brothers, Bill and Charlie, performed as a duo in the mid-1930’s; the Monroe Brothers were followed in 1939 by Bill’s first group of Blue Grass Boys, who awed folks at The Grand Ole Opry. In 1945, Monroe put together his most celebrated band, including Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, Wise, Chubby and Cedric Rainwater. Rainwater, Cedric The new band provided increased refinement and new instrumentation for Monroe’s creation. Although bluegrass evolved through several stages and involved a host of contributors, through it all, Bill Monroe remained the guiding and inspirational force.

Born on September 13, 1911, near Rosine, Kentucky, William Smith Monroe was the youngest child in a musical family of six. From his earliest youth, Bill loved the fiddle and guitar, but he was relegated to the mandolin in the family band, as his older brothers, Birch and Charlie, had prior claims to Bill’s instruments of choice. One of the greatest musical influences in Bill’s early life was his uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, Vandiver, Pendleton a fiddler who played at dances in the area. As a boy, Bill provided guitar rhythm for his uncle and, in the process, gained valuable insight into the capabilities of the fiddle. Monroe also acknowledged the virtuosity of black guitarist and fiddler Arnold Schultz Schultz, Arnold as being one of the molding forces in his music. As a result of the influences of Vandiver, Schultz, and, later, Clayton McMichen, Monroe kept his mandolin in tune with his bands’ fiddles—an important ingredient in the ultimate development of the Monroe sound.

When Bill turned eighteen, he moved north to join brothers Birch and Charlie, who were working in oil refineries in East Chicago. The brothers supplemented their income by performing as an acoustic trio for the WLS-Chicago radio station’s National Barn Dance road show. Although the Depression years were extremely difficult for the Monroe brothers, in 1933 Charlie and Bill decided to leave their day jobs to become full-time musicians. The Monroe Brothers, Monroe Brothers as they were billed, worked for the southern-based “Crazy Water Crystal Barn Dance,” and they developed a considerable following in the South and Midwest. The duo began their recording career in February, 1936, and by 1938, they had recorded sixty songs for Victor Records that were released on the Bluebird label. Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of Bill Monroe during his tenure with Charlie was the proficiency he gained on the mandolin, transforming it into a popular solo instrument.

After six years of performing with the Monroe Brothers, Bill left the family band in 1938 in the hope of perfecting his own musical ideas, something he could not do with his older brother as boss. In search of a new partner, Bill ran an advertisement in an Atlanta newspaper that resulted in the hiring of Cleo Davis as his new guitarist and lead singer. As the duo’s repertoire expanded beyond the songs of the Monroe Brothers, Bill advertised for additional band members, and he eventually hired bassist Amos Garen Garen, Amos and fiddler Art Wooten. Wooten, Art Monroe named the expanded band Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in honor of his home state of Kentucky. Throughout 1939, Monroe labored endlessly, tutoring Cleo Davis on how to do his guitar runs and Wooten on how to bow his fiddle. In addition to his emphasis on speed and clarity, Monroe forced his members to play in unconventional keys. His band was the first to play in B-flat, B-natural, and E, and when Monroe moved up to a B-flat or B, he went beyond the capabilities of most fiddlers and guitarists. In the process of perfecting his new sound, Monroe also established higher standards of professionalism for acoustic musicians.

Another contribution of Monroe’s 1939 band was the utilization of the string bass, an instrument popularized by jazz musicians, in country music. Although Monroe was not the first to use a string bass in his band—Roy Acuff and a few others were experimenting with the integration of the bass into their music—after the grand success of the Blue Grass Boys at the Opry in 1939, the bass became a mainstay in all bluegrass and country bands.

Perhaps the most significant new Blue Grass Boy was Art Wooten, the first in a long line of Monroe’s world-class fiddlers that included Tony Magness, Gordon Terry, Chubby Wise, Kenny Baker, Bobby Hicks, Charlie Cline, Howdy Forrester, Benny Martin, and “Tater” Tate. The fiddle was not only critical to the new instrumentals he was perfecting, but it also influenced Monroe’s unique vocal quality, which is often described as the “high lonesome sound.” This sound became another characteristic that helped to define bluegrass music.

Guitarist Cleo Davis proved to be an able replacement for Charlie Monroe. He worked with the band through their first appearance on The Grand Ole Opry, but he departed before their first recording session in 1940. Davis had a worthy list of successors that included Clyde Moody, Pete Pyle, Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin, Edd Mayfield, Del McCoury, Wayne Lewis, Tom Ewing, and others. By October of 1939, Monroe had fused his hard-driving tempo with the high lonesome sound, and the result was the style that proved so successful on The Grand Ole Opry.

Although Bill experienced great success following his debut at the Opry, the World War II years were difficult for all bands. Not only did the military draft make retaining a band quite difficult, but the implementation of gas rationing and other federal restrictions also greatly reduced the size of audiences. In an attempt to carry the music to the people, Bill organized his own traveling tent show in 1943, and it proved to be a major success. The tent show was a combined minstrel and vaudeville show that included comedy, jug players, harmonica players, and even a baseball team. Using such unorthodox techniques, Monroe, an ingenious businessman, attracted record crowds, kept his music alive, and weathered the war years in good financial shape.

In the postwar era, Monroe assembled his most renowned band, which included the five-string banjo wizard Earl Scruggs; Scruggs added the final ingredient that was to distinguish bluegrass as a unique form of music. Scruggs, a native of Cleveland County, North Carolina, who had played for Lost John Miller and the Allied Kentuckians, was encouraged by Jim Shumate, a Monroe band fiddler, to audition for a position with the Blue Grass Boys. Fearful of losing his regular job, Scruggs was reluctant, but Shumate arranged for the audition. There was also doubt among the Blue Grass Boys as to whether or not a banjo should be added to the band; Monroe had already experimented with a banjo player, David “Stringbean” Akeman, in 1942, but Akeman’s old-time style of play was incompatible with the band’s rapid-fire tempo. Scruggs appeared for his audition and played an old standard, “Sally Goodin,” which he followed with a new song titled “Dear Old Dixie.” Lester Flatt, who had opposed the addition of a banjoist, was so dumbfounded that he recommended to Monroe that Scruggs be hired whatever the cost.

Scruggs utilized a three-fingered (thumb, index, middle) picking style that was indigenous to western North Carolina. Although he did not invent the three-fingered technique, Scruggs certainly refined and revolutionized the style. His banjo solos at the Opry made him an instant star, and his style of banjo playing became a permanent part of the Monroe sound.

It would be hard to exaggerate the impact of Earl Scruggs on Bill Monroe’s band, but it is a mistake to conclude, as some critics have, that the banjo is the first requirement of bluegrass. Clearly, Monroe assigned a greater importance to the fiddle and mandolin. It would also be a mistake to minimize the importance of singer, songwriter, and guitarist Lester Flatt, who sang lead on many Monroe recordings and who contributed a number of hit songs to the band’s repertoire, including “Why Did You Wander?” and “Will You Be Loving Another Man?” Fiddler Chubby Wise was also important to this model bluegrass band, as he perpetuated the extremely high standards set by his predecessors for bluegrass fiddling. It is also clear that bassist Howard Watts (who used the stage name Cedric Rainwater) complemented the virtuosity of the other band members.


By 1948, Monroe’s innovation was clearly being transformed from the “Monroe sound” into the musical genre of bluegrass. This transformation was signaled by an ever-increasing number of Monroesque bands appearing across the country. Rather than being flattered by this newly emerging school of imitators, however, Monroe was enraged; he considered the copying to be equivalent to theft. He was understandably disturbed in 1948 when three of his Blue Grass Boys—Flatt, Scruggs, and Rainwater—left to form their own band, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys.

Monroe had lost numerous band members since 1939, but this was the first time a group had left to go into direct competition with him. Their sound, as well as much of their repertoire, was without question the creation of Bill Monroe. Other imitators included Ralph and Carter Stanley (the Stanley Brothers), who had a singer and mandolin player, Darrell “Pee Wee” Lambert, who was a Bill Monroe clone. When the Stanley Brothers were signed by Columbia Records in 1948, Monroe moved from Columbia to Decca, being totally intolerant of his imitators. Other bands imitating the Monroe sound were Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, the Bailey Brothers, the Briarhoppers, and the Blue River Boys.

Although some of Monroe’s resentment was justified—as when Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper recorded and released Monroe’s “Wicked Path of Sin” before he could release it himself—with the increasing number of bands aping his music, bluegrass was becoming more than a personalized sound. Bluegrass was becoming a musical genre, and the future of the music was becoming more secure. By 1965, Bill Monroe came to realize the significance of his contribution, and the resentment he formerly expressed for his competitors ended. Formal recognition of Bill Monroe’s contribution to bluegrass music came in September, 1991, when he was selected by his peers and fans to be one of the first three inductees into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Honor. Music;bluegrass
Bluegrass music
Blue Grass Boys

Further Reading

  • Black, Bob. Come Hither to Go Yonder: Playing Bluegrass with Bill Monroe. Foreword by Neil V. Rosenberg. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005. Part of the Music in American Life series, this memoir of one of Monroe’s banjo players focuses on his experiences as part of Monroe’s band. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Kochman, Marilyn, ed. The Big Book of Bluegrass. New York: Quill, 1984. A heavily illustrated text with historical notes, artist interviews, and personal notes. Special attention is given to the patriarchs of bluegrass and current innovators. Should be used with caution; contains errors.
  • Malone, Bill C. Country Music U.S.A.: A Fifty-Year History. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968. A scholarly book that is useful for placing Monroe’s work in a larger context.
  • Rinzler, Ralph. “Bill Monroe: ’The Daddy of Blue Grass Music.’” Sing Out 13 (February/March, 1963): 5-8. The first work to call for Bill Monroe’s recognition as the “father of bluegrass.”
  • Rosenberg, Neil V. Bluegrass: A History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985. The definitive work on bluegrass music, written by the leading authority. The best first source for anyone desiring to know more about bluegrass. Contains extensive bibliography as well as discography.
  • _______. “From Sound to Style: The Emergence of Bluegrass.” Journal of American Folklore 80 (April, 1967): 143-150. Special emphasis given to the transformation of the Bill Monroe sound into a genre.
  • Smirth, Richard D. Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass. Boston: Little, Brown, 2000. Lengthy, authoritative biography of Bill Monroe, including a discography and a videography of video recordings of Monroe’s performances. Bibliographic references and index.

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