Celebrating Bill Monroe as an autobiographical singer/songwriter

This special anniversary remembrance of Bill Monroe is a contribution from Richard D. Smith, author of the definitive biography of Big Mon, Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass. We greatly appreciate his essay.

On this September 13, Bill Monroe’s 111th birthday – a number as strong, standup, and straightforward as the man himself – we celebrate him for many good reasons.

We celebrate Bill as the “Father of Bluegrass” probably the only individual yet to create a distinctive genre of popular music; as a powerfully innovative virtuoso mandolin player; and as a compelling vocalist whose melody lines and high harmonies still thrillingly define “the high, lonesome sound.”

But Bill Monroe is also arguably the first great autobiographical singer-songwriter in country music history, recording what he called “true songs,” even before his friend and fellow American music great Hank Williams, Sr., who is well known for such compositions. 

Why don’t we celebrate this distinction? Indeed, why do many bluegrass fans seem unaware of this extra dimension to Monroe’s tremendous talent?

For countless centuries, creative persons have drawn upon their direct experiences for subject material. From poets elevated to ecstasy by new love, or plunged into despair by love lost, to master painters fashioning self-portraits, the deeply personal has been used to express the universal. Indeed, accomplished artists connect their lives with ours. What mattered to them, matters to us. 

Such is the case with Bill Monroe. No one needs to know the stories behind his most personal songs to enjoy them. They have the genius of universality. We instinctively relate to them on a powerfully direct level. But as a Monroe biographer, I can say that the more you know about the circumstances that gave rise to Bill’s “true songs,” the more they can delight you and touch your heart.

I can also say that I’ve taken heat when my revelations have involved his most passionate love songs. (One of my critics decried what he called my “tabloid job on Bill.”) 

So let me illustrate using just two brief examples — both non-romantic yet deeply moving. 

As I documented in my book Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass, Bill had terribly poor vision as a child. (Indeed, as an adult he was probably functionally blind in one eye). As a result, he responded intensely to sound – especially music. 

As the last of J.B. (James Buchanan) and Malissa Monroe’s eight children, Bill spent his formative years alone in the Monroe house with his mother as she did her endless chores. He well recalled how she would sing as she worked and, when sitting down for brief rests, play the fiddle or harmonica.

In October 1921, when Bill was 10 years old, Malissa died of a painful nerve ailment. She was laid out in the house briefly for visitation viewing, then taken for burial to the cemetery there in Rosine, Kentucky. For a visually-impaired child who closely associated his beloved mother with her music its absence must have been crushing.

When we know this, we understand exactly why Bill began his true song Memories of Mother and Dad with these words:

“Mother left this world of sorrow
Our home was silent and so sad …”

Revealed in their precise autobiographical power, “silent and so sad” are not simple descriptive words but beautifully poignant. 

In January 1928, J.B. Monroe was laid to rest next to Malissa. By then, most of their children were married and had families or had moved away to find jobs. The teenaged Bill was employed by an elder brother, Jack, tending and transporting crops in spring and summer, and cutting and hauling timber in autumn and winter. And he was taken in by Malissa’s brother Pendleton Vandiver – Bill’s now-famed “Uncle Pen.”

Pen’s cabin was on Tuttle Hill, overlooking the railway depot area of Rosine. Jack’s home was adjacent to the depot below, with a horse barn behind it. In summer, Bill would of course work as long as there was daylight, finally returning the horses to their stalls. As he unhitched, rubbed down, and fed and watered the animals – and looked forward to his own supper and rest – he could hear Uncle Pen on the hill above him, sitting on his porch, playing the fiddle. As Pen rocked the bow back and forth, and played different sections of a tune, it sounded to Bill like a conversation.

And that is precisely why Bill Monroe composed the chorus of Uncle Pen as:

“Late in the evening, about sundown
High on the hill above the town
Uncle Pen played the fiddle, Lord, how it would ring
You could hear it talk, you could hear it sing …”

Knowing the backstory of Uncle Pen gives us an additional uplift of joy and appreciation for Bill’s life and times.

So why is Bill Monroe not widely known and celebrated as an accomplished autobiographical singer/songwriter?

As I mentioned above, many of his most powerful songs issued from his romantic relationships. Some writers have believed that to reveal these experiences constitutes an invasion of Bill’s privacy. I maintain that it’s appropriate, even fitting, to examine the lives of artistic giants for clues to their work. And that includes Bill Monroe. Of course, such examinations must be made with compassion. 

(Incidentally, it’s interesting how little complaint is made about writers who examine the life of Hank Williams, Sr., a life which involved considerable interpersonal drama and tragic drug use. And if biographies of rock stars don’t contain intimate details, and lots of them, their readers are apt to feel cheated.)

But, I think, there’s a greater reason why Bill Monroe is not hailed as a pioneering singer/songwriter. And it’s from the mixed blessing of the concept (which still persists) of bluegrass-as-folk-music. 

It was a huge boon for our music, almost a saving grace, to be brought into the great Folk Revival of the 1950s and ’60s. This was not simply a marketing ploy but an appropriate recognition. Bluegrass is generally performed on acoustic, folk-style instruments, without percussion or keyboards. And a vibrant folk content runs through its core repertoire. 

For example, Flatt & Scruggs were the first bluegrassers to become national folk music stars. Earl Scruggs’ banjo renditions of Cripple Creek, Sally Ann, and Reuben’s Train frequently brought these numbers for the first time to audiences outside the South. And Monroe had retained the ancient modal scales in much of his music, and staunchly kept the fiddle alive as a country music lead instrument against the tide of electric guitars and pedal steels.   

Bluegrass undeniably benefited from distinguished folklorists who further strengthened the bluegrass-folk connection by documenting its traditional roots.

But in my view, that’s proven to be a two-edged sword. Although academic or academically-influenced books and articles cut open a path for bluegrass to share the popularity of folk music, they often severed away an appreciation of bluegrass as a modern, constantly-created art form. 

Simply put, if you elevate Bill to the level of a preserver of tradition (and well he should be), you risk ignoring — or at least being unprepared to appreciate — his legacy as a formidable creative artist.

Bill Monroe not only gifted the world with the wondrous music called bluegrass: He often laid bare his heart and soul in the process, even if the world hasn’t always known that. It’s a part of his immense legacy and it deserves celebration — not only on his birthday but every day.

[Richard D. Smith plays mandolin, is the author of Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass, and a frequent contributor to bluegrass publications. The views expressed are his own and do not represent an editorial position of Bluegrass Today.]