100 Years of Bill Monroe

Sep 12, 2011

Were he still alive, this Tuesday would have been Bill Monroe's 100th birthday. Monroe was born September 13, 1911 in Rosine, Kentucky, and is considered by most to be the "Father of Bluegrass Music." In commemoration of the milestone, Gary Pitts looks into how Monroe, his style, and his mandolin developed an entirely new genre of music, with commentary from Ricky Skaggs, George Gruhn, and contribution from Ted Belue.

You're listening to a recording of Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys from 1946. The Bluegrass Boys have consisted of over 150 musicians throughout the years, but the band in 1946 is the one that has come to define bluegrass music. Earl Scruggs on banjo. Lester Flatt on guitar. Chubby Wise on fiddle. Howard Watts on bass. And of course, Bill Monroe on mandolin. While the bluegrass sound may not have been the same without some of these band members, Earl Scruggs in particular, the genre may have never come about without Bill Monroe's hard driving mandolin style. 

"It had a chop, it had a bark. When he played rhythm on it, it became like a drum in a country or a rock band," said musician Ricky.Skaggs

Ricky Skaggs is, among other things, a fourteen time Grammy Award winner, and is considered one of the greatest mandolin players of all time.

"That was that back beat of what bluegrass, the sound was. And it was a sound that no one had had before that," said Skaggs

Skaggs is among the countless players heavily influenced by Bill Monroe. In 1960, Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys played a concert in Martha, Kentucky. Skaggs played with Monroe for the first time there when he was six years old. 

"I guess after about twenty or thirty minutes in the show, the towns people there started to request little Ricky Skaggs to get up and sing. He finally said Well get that little Ricky Skaggs on up here.' So I walked on up to the front of the stage. I don't think he knew how little I was. But he reached down, grabbed me by the arm, and pulled me up on the stage. Of course he asked me what I played first. I told him I played the mandolin. Well he smiled pretty big, and said Is that right?', and I said yes sir.' So he took the strap on the mandolin, and wrapped it around the curl of the body, and made it fit me. So I stood there and sung Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man,'" said Skaggs. 

Ricky played the same song a year later at the age of seven with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on the Martha White Country Music Variety Show.

The Bill Monroe style of playing was a key factor in the creation of bluegrass, and some would say helped lay the foundation for Rockabilly and Rock n' Roll. The driving, syncopated chops, and the hard, popping leads were unlike anything that had come before. But Monroe was a mandolin player long before he created the bluegrass sound, so what happened to cause him to change his style? George Gruhn is the owner of Gruhn Guitar Shop in Nashville, Tennessee specializing in antique instruments. Music Publications across the country cite Gruhn as an instrument guru. He says Bill Monroe's style changed when he stumbled across a 1923 Gibson F5 Lloyd Loar mandolin in a barber shop in Miami, Florida. 

"His sound changed so radically that I can't think of a better example of a partnership between a musician and an instrument where that instrument totally reshaped a player's whole style. The way people played before they were tickling the strings. Bill was darn near ripping them out of the bridge he'd hit it so hard," said Gruhn

"That mandolin was not simply a compliant tool doing what he told it to do. Because if that's all it was, he could have done some of that on the F7," said Gruhn

Prior to finding the F5, Monroe played a Gibson F7.

"But the F7 didn't suggest those sounds to Bill. Bill did things I know of no mandolin player prior to him even attempting, once he got the F5, but not before. So it was a very fortuitous thing that he stopped at a barber shop in Florida and found that thing as a used instrument for $125 dollars," said Gruhn.

Ricky Skaggs agrees.

"What's the odds of a mandolin player from Nashville, Tennessee walking down the street. Just so happened to walk by a barber shop, and looked in the window, and there was a mandolin opened up with a price tag on it for sale. And here's the man, the mandolin player, hadn't even started a style of music called bluegrass yet. But goes by, and plays that mandolin and falls in love with it, and buys it right there on the spot. You know, what's the odds of that? That's not just a happenstance. That s absolutely a God ordained moment," said Skaggs.

The Lloyd Loar F5 had a longer neck and a lighter body allowing Bill the freedom to play more notes, and resonating in a way that it cut through everything else. It was an important piece of the puzzle in the development of bluegrass. The center piece, though, was Bill Monroe.