And who shall wear the robe and crown?

Chris JonesPeople have lately been asking me to explain the hierarchy of bluegrass music (and by “people,” I mean my cousin Jimmy). Other than knowing that Bill Monroe is “The Father of Bluegrass,” I had to admit that I hadn’t given it much thought. Now I wish I’d kept it that way; it turns out to be a pretty complex subject.

One complicating factor is that we’re really talking about two different structures: the bluegrass hierarchy, and the bluegrass family tree.

The bluegrass family tree is simpler and open to less disagreement: Bill Monroe, as mentioned above, is the undisputed Father of Bluegrass Music. It naturally follows that James Monroe is the Brother of Bluegrass (do you suppose sibling rivalry has ever been an issue there?). Charlie Monroe is the Uncle of Bluegrass (or one of them). Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen is the Great Uncle of Bluegrass.

There have been a few releases now by “The Daughters of Bluegrass.” The current boxed set features, according to the latest count, 134 Daughters (a few of them were moving around during the counting process, so some put the number at closer to 131). They of course are all the Granddaughters of Bill Monroe. I’m pretty sure the Monroe family adopted the “draw” system of Christmas present-giving.

The Mother of Bluegrass is a more controversial issue: some mistakenly think it’s Marilyn Monroe, but I think it’s historically accurate to refer to Caroline Monroe, the mother of James and Melissa Monroe (the Sister of Bluegrass) as the rightful Mother of Bluegrass. After all, she did feed, clothe, and change the diapers of Bluegrass Music in its infant years.

The bluegrass hierarchy and line of royal succession is another matter entirely, and here’s where things can get complicated.

Unlike in the British Royal family, bloodline is not really a determining factor in who receives royal titles. They’re usually self-assigned, or assigned by a publicist or manager, eager to find a good marketing angle.

It’s well-accepted that Jimmy Martin is the King of Bluegrass, or was the King of Bluegrass. Jimmy has passed away, meaning there should in theory be a new King of Bluegrass. When Clifton Chenier, the King of Zydeco died, there was a lot of jockeying that went on with various other zydeco artists claiming to be heir to the throne.

There has been no such jockeying in bluegrass music. Perhaps all the potential heirs are too humble, or perhaps they know exactly how difficult it is to follow Jimmy Martin in anything. And yet, lots of relatively dull princes had to succeed charismatic kings in history (though not one of those kings was any good at singing Sunny Side of the Mountain), and it didn’t stop them.

So, it’s become clear that we have a lot of royal openings to be filled. Thankfully, we do already have a Queen of Bluegrass, and it was not even a self-assigned title. The Wall Street Journal, which, next to Vanity Fair, is the foremost authority on bluegrass music, assigned Rhonda Vincent the crown a number of years ago.

It’s comforting to know, then, that we do have a monarch at the helm. But what about princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses, marquesses and marchionesses? Yes, we now have Terry Baucom as “The Duke of Drive,” but we need to start assigning some of these other titles. The problem is, who would do this? It can’t be the IBMA. That’s like having the parliament pick the king and queen.

No, I’m afraid it will fall to Rhonda to do this job, or we can go with the first-come-first-served system of self-appointment that has served us and other forms of music so well.

I’d like to throw out just a few ideas for consideration, to help get the process started:

  • Doyle Lawson – Prince and first heir to the throne (as a former Sunny Mountain Boy himself, he knows better than to mess with the title of “King”)
  • J.D. Crowe – Archduke of Lexington
  • Claire Lynch – Princess and heiress to the throne
  • Dale Ann Bradley – Princess, and Duchess of Soul
  • Sam Bush – Baron of Western Kentucky (or is that “Barren”?) and first Count of Newgrass
  • Sierra Hull – Marchioness of Mandolin

It’s hard to place Alison Krauss below the Queen title, so we could perhaps think of her as Queen-in-exile, quietly amassing power, stage personnel, and Grammys (which can be deadly when catapulted at high speeds), in preparation to reclaim the throne after the inevitable Bluegrass Wars.

Earl Scruggs, though sadly he’s no longer with us, is of course the Earl of Bluegrass (what else?).

  • David Morris

    Chris, I’m surprised you didn’t mention the estranged Brother of Bluegrass, Earl (the Pearl) Monroe, driven from the fold in the early days of bluegrass because he was (horrors) a drummer. He adopted the name of his drum maker as his nickname as part of an endorsement deal.

  • Chris Jones

    Sorry for the oversight, David. This also came in from Christopher Howard Williams: Del McCoury should of course be Count Del of McCoury (and I would add: First Viscount of DelFest).

  • Chris Jones

    I also neglected to mention Ralph Stanley, but that’s only because he’s already both Doctor and President, and that’s a whole other system.

  • Lisa Jacobi

    Chris and gathered panel of experts… on the subtopic of bluegrass music royalty, who holds these titles?

    Consort: (wait, don’t answer this one)
    Bonnie Prince:
    Court Jester:
    AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, Standard Bearers:

  • Dick Bowden

    Enjoyed your comments very much, on both family nd royalty.

    But oh my Chris, I’m disappointed at the omission. A biography of Lester Flatt years ago, by his friend Olan Bassham, was named “Lester Flatt, Baron of Bluegrass”. Now maybe Walter Hensley (another omission?) might have averred, but I missed seeing Lester in your list.

    Finally, I think James King has a good claim to be the current King of Bluegrass.

    Malissa Vandiver Monroe of Rosine KY would probably be the “Queen Mother” of Bluegrass, don’t you think? Sewing up both family and aristocracy?

    Surely Cousin Jake, Cousin Emmy, Uncle Josh, Uncle Dave Macon, Cousin Minnie Pearl, The Duke of Paducah, Uncle Jimmy Thompson, Uncle Puny, Aunt George Shuffler, Cousin Ezra Cline, Cousin Kenny Vaughn, Brother Oswald and Sister Rachel, Mel & Stan the Kentucky Twins, Brother Carter, Paul Prince the Prince of Old Time Fiddlers, Cousin Jody, Leroy Troy the Sultan of Goodlettsville, Uncle Bunt Stephens, and many more deserve a shout-out too.

    But I draw the line at Grandpa Jones, that just wouldn’t be right.

    Maybe Frank Wakefield was the Dauphin for a while?

  • Chris Jones

    Good ones, Dick! I was just getting the conversation started, not trying to be at all complete, but shame on me anyway for missing Lester as Baron, especially on his birthday!

    I guess Walter Hensley had a whole band full of Dukes.

    Speaking of James King, someone called into my show one time asking me to play something by “King James.”

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