The Father of Bluegrass Music Remembered

This post is a contribution from Richard Thompson, a founding member of the British Bluegrass Music Association. He is also a longstanding contributor to British Bluegrass News, a quarterly print publication where he also briefly served as editor. He wrote the Roots & Branches column for International Country Music News for some years, and is now preparing a factbook (catalog of important events) on the life of Bill Monroe.

Bill MonroeTen years ago tears fell on Rosine as Bill Monroe ?Ôø?Ôø?«®Ôø?Ôø?Ôø? the father of bluegrass music ?Ôø?Ôø?«®Ôø?Ôø?Ôø? was borne to his final resting place not far from where he was born and raised in the Ohio County, Kentucky, town. Perhaps more tears will be shed as we recognise the significance of today.

Blue Grass Boys are remembering the days they spent on the road with Bill Monroe and fans worldwide are reminiscing about the time with him either as a close friend or seeing him from a distance at a festival or in a concert hall as he shaped and performed what we now call bluegrass music; his music.

Fiddler Dale Morris tells a story that takes place in January 1985.

“We were to play a show in Birmingham Alabama, then go to Kissimmee Florida to another festival.

The winter was very severe that year. In Nashville and south of, into Alabama, there was approximately 8 to 10 inches of solid ice on the highway. Travelling was to be very treacherous, however our bus broke down south of Nashville near the Alabama state line.

Most of the night was spent in a truck stop while we waited out repair of the bus. It was during the night that I was sitting with some of the band in the truck stop restaurant and Bill came in from the bus. Some folks recognized him and began to talk to him. Bill was VERY GRACIOUS, talked to them freely, signed autographs for them, then he went to the bus, got the mandolin, brought it in to the restaurant and played for these folks several hours!!! NOT ANYONE in the prior music circles I’d ever been in would have done THIS!!!

What it amounts to, in my opinion, is that there is a fellowship and “down-to-earth” attitude that most bluegrass musicians seem to share with each other as well as there fans that could be likened to, I think, as a “culture”. Bill Monroe, I feel, reflected and perpetuated this culture. He was responsible, I feel, for much much more than just the music.”

Doug Hutchens, who at the tender age of 19 played bass and banjo for Monroe for about three months during the summer of 1971, is more profound.

“I miss him each and every day and I cannot imagine who I would be today if I had not know him. Things that I learned from him, he was pretty much like a grandfather figure to me, not unlike the older folks that I grew up around and I feel a very close kinship with Bill, Birch and Berta because they cared about me and so much of what is woven into the fibre of my being came from folks like that.”

September 9, 1996, was a very sad day for guitarist/lead singer Tom Ewing. However, he does admit,

“Bill had been in nursing and care facilities so long at that point, suffering with the knowledge that he would probably never play and sing again and suffering with his helplessness — his loss of the ability to do anything he wanted to do whenever he wanted to it, something he took great pride in.Music was his life; his life was music. He had always gone his own way, fearing no one, determined, physically and emotionally powerful enough to push any obstacle out of his way to get where he wanted to be. He had accomplished so much by being such a forceful being.

I knew that he was suffering. So on September 9, I came to the realization that a terrible burden had been lifted from him. The long days and nights of suffering were over, and now he could rest.”

Bass player Mark Hembree speaks a simple truth with which nobody can argue, “There will never be another like him.”

Folklorist, author and banjo picker Neil Rosenberg hopes that there will be something tangible with which to remember Monroe.

“The tenth anniversary of Bill Monroe’s passing is very much on my mind as I’m working these days with the University of Illinois Press on the final steps of publishing The Music of Bill Monroe. The late Charles Wolfe and I began working on this bio-discography shortly after Bill died. I hope it will be a suitable memorial to this unique composer, performer and leader.”

Lorraine Jordan in just one of many who sees Bill Monroe as a guiding light.

“Never has a person had such an influence on my life and my musical career. As a young girl dreaming to play on stage some day and getting a chance to see the father of bluegrass front and center and him asking me to give my mandolin a ‘chunk’ as he called it. His words to me were, ‘Girl you got a strong right hand and that’s’ what sets the pace. Do not ever let up on that. IT’S powerful!’

Well 25 years later I am in the finals for IBMA recorded project of the year and SPBGMA mandolin player of the year and that voice still rings in my head. If I could re-live any moment it would be to watch him one time at Camp Springs, North Carolina, and then to follow him to his table just to catch a close up of him.”

Irish bluegrass enthusiast Enda Donnelly recalls a brief but memorable interlude with Bill Monroe:

“My fondest memory of all was when I, my wife, Geraldine, and her sister, Irene, met and talked to him for a short while in the lobby of the Metropole Hotel in Cork city, early 1980s at The Country Music Festival. I quote, ‘What instrument do you play son?’ I said, ‘Mandolin,’ and he said, while putting his arm around my shoulder, ‘Us mandolin players should stick together.’ I have not forgotten that wonderful morning in Cork.

There was a certain presence about the man and we have some lovely photos of that event plus one black and white promotional photograph of him which he signed saying best wishes etc., which I framed. Since his passing that event is more moving and of more significance than ever before. One of my favourite tunes, which I play all the time, is ‘The Lonesome Moonlight Waltz.’ “

To emphasize the world-wide respect and love for him, here are two haikus – a form of poetry that originated in Japan – for people to ponder about Mr. Monroe:

Father of discipline,
Honest music, bluegrass is.
Gotta travel on.
A hard drivin’ man,
Told stories high and lonesome,
From his heart to ours.

[Haikus provided by Joe Ross]

Bill Monroe : September 13, 1911 ?Ôø?Ôø?«®Ôø?Ôø?Ôø? September 9, 1996

  • Great memorial, Monroe really personified what it meant to be a musician completely deadicated to his music and fans. Thanks very much!

  • Richard Thompson


    I have two further tributes, both of which were posted to the Bgrass-L and the Yahoo! group greatcountry yesterday, September 9, 2006. I would like to share them with you here.

    Remembering Bill Monroe …

    Hazel Smith, whose phrase, “Walk softly, you’re walking on my heart”, prompted the writing of a ‘true’ song, a particularly beautiful love song, feels Bill Monroe’s passing very deeply, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìEvery day I think of Bill and the music he created. I miss him and thank God he was a part of my life. His genius will live forever and ever through bluegrass music. When you say bluegrass, you say Monroe and vice versa..?¢‚Ǩ¬ù


    Doctor of Philosophy, folklorist and bluegrass historian, Tom Adler has had Bill Monroe’s passing very much in the forefront of his mind in the past few days, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìToday [September 7, 2006] I’ve been immersed in some last-minute tape transcriptions for my book, and so, as it happens I have spent most of the day listening to the voices of people like Glen Duncan and Hazel Smith as they talked about their friend Bill and the music park he loved at Bean Blossom. They, of course, were much closer to him than I ever was. I spent some time alone with him at his farm one afternoon when I was part of the IBMM, and treasure that, as well as all the times I was in his company with others who knew and loved his music well. And I had begun to love his music back in the late 1950s myself, as a kid in south Chicago. And just like the rest of those who know and love his music, and who knew the man himself, I have to agree with the idea that we’ll never see his like again.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù

    ?¢‚Ǩ?ìThinking of Bill’s death takes me back to the few days after he died — first there was the service in Nashville, which I could not attend from Lexington, given my work schedule, and though I had no plans at first to go to Rosine, my perceptive and loving wife Betsy saw that I was just not feeling right about much of anything, just moping around, and, knowing what I needed, she told me to go to Bill’s funeral in Rosine. So I made the three-hour drive over there, and joined the throng who were there for Bill’s funeral. Some of my friends from Rosine — Hoyt and Eleanor Bratcher, who then ran the little grocery store in Rosine and had a big role in the Rosine Old Barn Jamboree — had saved me a seat in the church where Bill’s casket lay, and I joined them in viewing his remains. The lining of the casket was filled with shiny quarters that mourning friends had slipped into place there, paying back Bill, who loved to give a child he encountered a shiny quarter and introduce himself as they gazed at him, awestruck. I sat with Hoyt and Eleanor for a time in the church pew, which was very crowded. The entire church was filled to overflowing, and eventually the closeness and the realization, as I saw his open casket and his body lying there, that Bill was really gone, hit me hard. Embarrassed , too, by the privilege of being given an actual seat inside the church, I excused myself to Hoyt and Eleanor and some others I knew in there before the service began, and left the building. Outside, I joined the very large crowd of friends who listened to the funeral service, once it began, over a PA system. Later we followed along to the cemetery, only a few hundred feet at most from the church. There we stood crowded around and listened, and I’d say most of us cried along with Ricky Skaggs and the others who sang and said their public final goodbyes to Bill. I noted many, many familiar faces all through that afternoon: Blue Grass Boys of various generations, dedicated fans and friends of Bill whom I recognized from festivals and shows and my many years at Bean Blossom. And also lots of strangers to me, but I knew why they were all there; like me, they had to be.?¢‚Ǩ?ì

    ?¢‚Ǩ?ìI don’t think much anymore about Bill being gone, and it’s amazing somehow that it’s been ten years already. I know he is dead and departed, but the books written and still being written about him, the videos of him on youtube and elsewhere, the stories about him that people still love to tell (usually invoking their best imitations of his voice and vocal style), and above all his own recorded music and catalog of songs and tunes just go on and on. They’re all pale shadows of the man himself, of course — except maybe his own music — but the power in him as a man is evident even through the filters of all those media realizations. “Powerful.” One of his own favorite descriptive terms, and he himself was the best example of it.?¢‚Ǩ¬ù

    Tom Adler is preparing a book about Bean Blossom that he hopes will be published next year.

    Richard Thompson