On This Day #47 – Bill Monroe

Bill MonroeOn this day 20 years ago Bill Monroe passed away.

On September 9, 1996, Bill Monroe, the acknowledged Father of Bluegrass Music, passed away.

Today we remember the date as a few members of the bluegrass music community, young and not so young, share some thoughts on Bill Monroe 20 years later.

Although he is chairman of the Board of Trustees for the International Bluegrass Music Museum, in Owensboro (just 45 minutes-drive from Bill Monroe’s home-place in Rosine), Mike Simpson’s actual closeness to Monroe is revealing ……

“Bill Monroe is indelibly imprinted on my mind as my mother’s family is from Rosine and her grandfather, Cleveland Baize, played music often with Pendelton Vandiver (Uncle Pen). A young Bill Monroe would go to the ‘ol’ Lizer place’ where my great-grandfather lived to hear them play. Years later I was asked to serve on the Board of Directors of the International Bluegrass Music Museum and the semblance of that privilege is not lost on me. This American art form continues to be enjoyed internationally to this day and it is all due to Bill Monroe.”

Lauren Price is the older of twins, with Leanna, who have begun to forge a career as The Price Sisters, having graduated from the Price Family bluegrass band in 2012 …..

Lauren and Leanna Price“Sometimes I wonder if Bill Monroe were alive today, would he appear the giant of a musician that I imagine him to be. I’ve been to the June Bean Blossom festival four years now, and there’s just something about it that makes it special. Still, every year I think to myself, ‘wouldn’t it be something to experience if Mr. Monroe were here.’ I never knew Bill Monroe; he passed away when I was nearly two years old, yet, despite that fact, when I think of the man and his music, he is a giant to me. I grew up singing with my family around the house, and have been playing the mandolin for over ten years – traditional music has always been an important part of my life. When I was fifteen years old, I enrolled in a workshop with Mike Compton, and that’s what really turned me to Monroe’s style of music, and since then I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

As with any art form, I value pieces that convey the artist’s emotion because I see that as a form of honesty, which speaks to me. I feel Bill Monroe’s music is that way – there is meaning behind it. Also, I’m intrigued by the complexities of the music. When you’re looking at it from the outside, it’s a simple music in a lot of ways. Then, too, delving deeper you discover the intricacies of his style and I find that fascinating. There’s just something about his music that created this impact on me, and it’s something I feel more than I can explain.

Monroe’s style is one I have appreciated for years now, and have made it the primary influence on my playing. As The Price Sisters, my sister Leanna and I share the same love of traditional bluegrass, and we like to convey that in our own music. I’m honored to also say that I’ve been chosen as one of the instructors at this year’s Monroe-Style Mandolin Camp, which inspires many people to further research Monroe’s music. I hope to be able to perform his style, and then also play my own way with those influences worked in throughout to preserve, promote, and carry on something that holds meaning to me and many people. I believe Mr. Monroe’s influence is still very present in the world of bluegrass today – it’s ‘powerful.’ “

Bluegrass Patriots founder and banjo player Ken Seaman remembers two visits that Bill Monroe made to the Ozarks ….

Bill Monroe with Ken Seaman“Growing up in the isolated Ozark village of Eminence, Missouri, young folks had three or four events each year that created a lot of excitement: Christmas, Independence Day (complete with a carnival!), Opening Day of Deer Season and the annual appearance of a Nashville act at the local high school gym to raise money for the senior class trip. I was fortunate to have front row seats for Ernest Tubb, The Wilburn Brothers, and Roy Acuff during the early 1950s.  But in September of 1954 Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys came to town and that changed my life. The music he played rang in my head for days and although it was still called ‘Country Music’ in those days, I knew it was unique and special!  Throughout the evening people would walk to the stage to leave requests and Bill would comply. Following the show some of the locals took Bill and the band fox hunting and the entire community felt like he was ‘one of us.’ Needless to say, I hovered around our radio every Saturday night to listen to Bill on the Grand Ole Opry to soak up as much bluegrass as possible.

Four years later I had just obtained my driver’s license and, unknown to my parents, drove 25 miles to Club 60 in Birch Tree, Missouri, to hear Bill and the boys play in a dimly lit tavern. After ‘talking my way in’ I was shocked that fewer than 20 people were in attendance and most of them more interested in shooting pool than hearing the Father of Bluegrass! None of this seemed to bother Bill as he and the band performed like there were thousands in the audience! During intermission I requested songs and visited with Bill. He was kind, patient and asked me about his fox hunting buddies over in Eminence.

These memories from well over a half-century ago will be in my mind forever and inspired me to later form a bluegrass band of my own and to promote bluegrass music every chance I could.”

Leanna Price is the lead singer and fiddle player in the Price Sisters bluegrass band. While Blue Grass Boy Kenny Baker is probably her biggest influence, she has benefitted from fiddle lessons from another Blue Grass Boy, Byron Berline ….

The Price Sisters“It is hard to believe that it is 20 years since Mr. Monroe’s passing, and I’m sure it may seem even longer for those who knew him well. I never had the opportunity to meet Bill Monroe, as I was barely two years old at the time of his death. However, bluegrass, old-time, and country music have been such integral parts of my life, and Monroe’s sound lie at the heart of it all for me. I grew up listening to many members of my family sing and play old-timey music, especially my mother and dad, and singing along with them was only the natural thing to do. Though I began learning fiddle shortly after turning nine, Lauren and I did not listen much to Bill in particular until we were around 16 and were able to start attending bluegrass festivals and workshops. Until that time, we listened mostly to the Carter Family, Johnny Cash, and those of the like.

It seems to me though, that once we began attending festivals for the first time, we were really fortunate to watch, learn from, and become acquainted with some veterans of this music. The more we were around such people, the more we wanted to really get back to where it all began, with Bill Monroe. Lauren fell in love with Bill’s style of mandolin playing, and I quickly became hooked on the sounds of Kenny Baker and how he so perfectly accompanied Bill. I personally am very interested in becoming familiar with the roots of such things, and learning why (as best I can,) the music sounds the way that it does. Monroe’s music to me is powerful and real. Though it may sound cliché, his heart and emotion went into whatever he played or sang, and he let the music speak for him. You can just feel how important every little note that he played or sang was to him. That is something I can grab a-hold of when I listen to his music, as well as the music of others of the same era, and that is what I appreciate the most. His music is raw, powerful, and real, and it speaks to me in ways that I really can’t explain. Because of those things, I feel that his style will always remain prevalent in the bluegrass community.”

Doug Hutchens was the Blue Grass Boys’ regular bass player during the summer of 1971 who filled in on banjo occasionally during that time. He remained close with Bill Monroe after leaving the band, organizing several birthday tributes to Bill ……..

Doug Hutchens with Bill Monroe, Byrol Berline, Wayne Lewis and Tex Logan - photo by Jim Sillman“It is hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since Bill passed…Sometimes I have to revisit to remind myself of some of the things that went on during the days following Bill passing. I’m so glad I took time to make some notes so time would not erode my memories.

I sure miss Bill Monroe. When I was young, I had grown up around older folks in our neighborhood and that could explain why I understood Bill, also why he took me on the road during the summer of 1971. We shared the love of working, Bill loved to work, when his health began to fail and he couldn’t do much, he told me the last time I visited him out on the farm, ‘Doug, I’m in torment, all these years. I’ve have finished dates and rushed back to the farm so I could get out here and get things done. Now I can’t do them anymore and can’t find anyone that can do them the way I want them done.’

There are so many things I miss about Bill. I used to love to watch his hands, you could tell he was in command of the instruments and probably played better in his later days than ever, I remember he would sit and play the mandolin, sometimes for hours and never play the same thing twice. That’s how he came up with new melodies.

Bill’s hands were as strong as steel, yet he would get some of the most delicate tones, chimes and special riffs and flourishes that I’ve never seen anyone recreate. A tune that comes to mind right off is Land of Lincoln. The way Bill played it, he had a backward slide and it almost sounded like a gust of wind, I’ve heard many try to play that tune, and everyone else only plays the notes. I’ve never heard anyone capture Bill’s feel of that tune. With his left hand he could do anything with his little finger that he could with the first of middle finger… With his right hand could put power behind the band, yet, he could also sit and play intricate different timings and shuffles with the pick that he remembered from Uncle Pen’s bow strokes. Unfortunately, very little of that made it to the commercial recordings… Probably the project Master of Blue Grass was the closest that it ever came to capturing the real Bill Monroe and his relationship with the mandolin.

I remember once when we were working on the fence at Bean Blossom, and a rain shower started and we went to the Barn… Bill had his mandolin, and we sat there in the entrance way. He was working on Jerusalem Ridge at the time and Kenny Baker was having a hard time picking up the first lines….it was backward to what he had ever played before… Kenny and Joe got their fiddles, and Bill played it over and over with both of them trying to catch what he wanted them to play…. Finally, Bill said ‘Let me see that fiddle’ to which Baker handed it right over….  I thought, ‘I’m going to really see something’… Bill had the left hand positions, but it was really funny to watch him try to use the bow… We all laughed about that for years. Occasionally, on stage Baker sometimes as a joke would offer to hand Bill the fiddle and the bow…  I don’t think anyone other than the band ever knew the inside joke.

In thinking back, Bill probably spent more time in a suit than most business men. We would usually get back on Monday mornings, and he used to go into town on Tuesday mornings. Many times he would stop by and pick me up and I’d ride into town with him. He always wore a suit and his hat. He would park behind the Ryman and go in to check his mail. He used to tell people on the radio that you could write him in care of the Opry. While he was taking care of his business, I usually went over to GTR the instrument and repair shop. He would always give me a time to meet him at Linebaugh’s Restaurant and we’d have lunch. The owner would always come by the table and visit with Bill for a few minutes. I remember Bill saying that the both of them had come to town about the same time years ago.

It is so hard to believe it has been 20 years since Bill passed, and it’s also even harder to believe it has been 45 years since I worked with his as a Blue Grass Boy… Time marches on, but the lessons I learned from Bill Monroe have served me well. Kinda strange, but being used to be around older folks… I probably learned as much from Bill’s silence as I did his words. I see something daily that reminds me of him, he is still with me.”

Jeanette Williams has quietly become one of the most successful and celebrated women in bluegrass music. A writer of powerful songs that are delivered with an angelic voice and warm, sincere personality ………..

Jeanette Williams“I remember playing a festival in North Carolina many years ago, with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys scheduled to play after our set. Even though he was very ill at the time, he checked himself out of the hospital to come and play the festival. One of his band members approached us and asked if we could extend our set so that Mr. Monroe could have a shorter set to accommodate his illness. When Bill found out about that, he was livid, and insisted on performing his full set. His determination was evident, and a testament to his commitment to his fans. A true legend… then and now.”

Ah, yes… we remember him well!

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.