The Father of Bluegrass: Remembering Bill Monroe on What Would Have Been His 111th Birthday

by Clayton Edwards

Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass passed away just a few days before his 85th birthday in 1996. However, his impact on American music is as strong as when he traveled the country, played festivals, and introduced world-class musicians to the public.  He is credited as the Father of Bluegrass, he and The Bluegrass Boys created and nurtured the genre. More than that, Monroe helped to elevate the mandolin as a lead instrument through his legendary playing. His influence echoes through bluegrass, country, folk, and even rock & roll today.

Today, Monroe would have been 111 years old. To celebrate one of the most influential musicians in American musical history, we’re going to look back at his life and career. While you’re at it, you can check out our Bill Monroe playlist. Be sure to follow Outsider on Spotify to get the best music from all of our favorite artists.

Bill Monroe’s Early Days

Bill Monroe was born in Rosine, Kentucky on September 13, 1911. The youngest of eight children, Monroe was surrounded by traditional Appalachian folk music from a very early age. His parents and siblings all played instruments, so when Bill came of age, he picked up the mandolin which would be his main instrument for the rest of his natural-born days. According to Alan Cackett, no one else in the Monroe family played the mandolin, so he chose the instrument to fill the vacant role.

After Bill Monroe’s parents died, he went to live with his Uncle Pen, a local fiddler. While there, he honed his mandolin skills alongside his talented uncle. Additionally, Monroe met Arnold Shultz, a Black bluesman who deeply influenced the younger musician’s playing.

“Uncle Pen”

When Bill Monroe turned 18, he moved to East Chicago, Indiana to be with his older brothers. He, Birch, and Charlie worked as manual laborers during the day and played dances and parties at night. Before long, Birch dropped out of the band. The remaining two members formed The Monroe Brothers. Together, they toured the Eastern United States. In 1936, The Monroe Brothers signed to Victor RCA and recorded 60 songs over two years, according to Britannica. In 1938, Bill and Charlie went their separate ways. That’s where the story of bluegrass begins.

The Blue Grass Boys

After striking out on his own, Bill Monroe formed The Kentuckians. They only played together for a few months before disbanding. This made way for Monroe to take his place in history. He formed The Blue Grass Boys and auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry. By 1939, Monroe and his band were regular performers on the Opry.

However, it would be a few years before bluegrass would take shape. That happened when banjoist Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt joined the band. Scruggs’ signature banjo picking and Flatt’s guitar style helped to flesh out the sound. Bill Monroe knew what he wanted his music to sound like and tracked down the musicians that could make it happen.

Flatt and Scruggs “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”

About bluegrass, Bill Monroe said, “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. It has a high, lonesome sound. It’s plain music that tells a good story, it’s played from my heart to your heart and it will touch you.”

Bill Monroe: The Father of Bluegrass

Like any good father, Bill Monroe believed it was his place to nurture and protect the genre that he helped to create. He would regularly talk down to bands who claimed to be playing bluegrass but didn’t meet his musical standards. There’s no way to know how many bands heard Monroe tell them “That ain’t no part of nothin’,” in reference to their music. He also had an eye for talent. Over the years, he nurtured the talent of many young musicians.

One only needs to look at the many musicians who came in and out of The Blue Grass Boys to appreciate Monroe’s eye for talent. Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Mac Wiseman, Del McCoury, Bobby Hicks, Peter Rowan, and many more made got their start with Bill Monroe’s band.

Decline and Resurgence

Bluegrass was incredibly popular across the United States in the 40s. However, as the 50s dawned and rock & roll rose to prominence, ‘grass lost its place in the sun. In the 60s, though, American roots music in general and bluegrass, in particular, saw a resurgence in popularity. The “Folk Revival” of the 60s helped to bring Bill Monroe the accolades he earned in his years of work. These accolades included several hall of fame inductions and winning the first-ever bluegrass Grammy Award.

Monroe continued to perform and record until his death in 1996.

Selected Accolades and Awards

  • Country Music Hall of Fame – 1970
  • Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame – 1971
  • IBMA Distinguished Achievement Award – 1986
  • Grammy for Best Bluegrass Recording for Southern Flavor – 1989
  • IBMA Hall of Fame – 1991
  • Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award – 1993
  • Bluegrass Hall of Fame – 1993
  • Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – 1997
  • ACM Cliffie Stone Icon Award – 2006