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Bill Monroe: Biography & Songs

Instructor: Benjamin Truitt
Bill Monroe is most famously known as the father of bluegrass music. In this lesson, you'll learn about his humble beginnings and how he found a musical style that was uniquely his.

A Humble Start

'His songs were always sad and dark, they never got syrupy. He never tried to whitewash life. He sang the blues, really, and he never wavered from it.' - Emmylou Harris on Bill Monroe

Bill Monroe
Bill Monroe Photo

Bill Monroe (1911-1996) rose from humble beginnings in Kentucky to create a sub-genre of music that has reached across social and cultural boundaries. He is known as the father of bluegrass music, a type of music that usually includes a group of stringed instruments such as guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and bass, and band members singing in harmony. Monroe is not the best-known bluegrass musician or the most successful, but he started and created a folk counter-culture movement that is thriving in the United States today at bluegrass festivals and in popular media.

Scotland Meets Kentucky Blue

Monroe was born in Kentucky to a Scottish father. He was a weak child and was cross-eyed, and both issues caused him to feel embarrassed and self-conscious. His father pushed all his children to learn instruments, and Bill was given the mandolin, which he mastered and could play accurately at breakneck speeds. He also learned to play guitar from his Uncle Pen, whose country style of playing deeply influenced the young musician. Bill also spent many evenings playing with a Black blues musician, a lesser-known factor in his developing bluegrass style.

The Monroe Brothers
The Monroe Brothers

His parents died when he was a teenager and he joined his brothers as wandering musicians in the South just before the Great Depression. Monroe witnessed a South that was going to undergo a radical transformation in his lifetime from a very rural society to one that would become fairly urbanized. This social shift fed deeply into Monroe's lyrics and inspirations of traditional, rural Appalachia.

Monroe joined with his brothers to form a small country band during World War II, but his oldest brother moved on to other work, leaving the Monroe Brothers as a duo. The two never could agree on the direction of their music and they ended up breaking up to start separate Kentucky bands that subsequently also fell apart. In 1939, Monroe formed the Blue Grass Boys and began to construct his vision of a fast-paced country style of music that blended the styles from his background, but the style didn't come into its own until the addition of Lester Flatts and Earl Scruggs.

The Blue Grass Boys: The Birth of Bluegrass

Mule Skinner Blues Record
Mule Skinner Blues Record

Earl Scruggs' innovative three-fingered banjo roll and Lester Flatts' guitar and vocals were the perfect complement to Monroe's fast-paced mandolin playing. The three bluegrass legends brought a new sound and intensity to bluegrass. One of the earliest pieces demonstrating Monroe's dexterity and break with tradition is 'The Mule Skinner Blues,' which Monroe sped up and then overlaid with his high-pitched vocals. This piece combined simple traditional folk arrangements with an energetic sound which defined bluegrass music.

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