Monroe, Bill

Monroe, Bill (William Smith Monroe), 1911–96, country singer, musician, and songwriter, often called the “father of bluegrass,” b. Rosine, Ky. A mandolin and guitar player, Monroe was born to a musical family, with his uncle Pendleton Vandiver a country fiddle player who had a large influence on his musical development, and his two older brothers, Birch (fiddle) and Charlie (guitar), playing and singing country music. Seeking employment, the brothers relocated to Indiana where they worked in an oil refinery by day and played music by night. Eventually, Bill and Charlie formed a duet and recorded for Bluebird Records from 1936-38. Charlie's laidback singing and subtle guitar playing was perfectly complemented by Bill's intense harmonies and lighting-fast mandolin playing, and they had country hits with songs like "Nine Pound Hammer" and "What Would You Give (In Exchange for Your Soul)?"

After the brothers split up in 1938, Monroe founded his band, the Blue Grass Boys, and the group began playing country music that mixed rural stringband music, folk ballads, blues, and white gospel–a style later known as bluegrass. Featuring Monroe's high tenor voice and virtuoso mandolin along with the fiddle, bass, guitar, and banjo, the band became known for its beautiful harmonies and driving rhythms. From 1945 on the group made a series of popular recordings, including "New Muleskinner Blues" and "Kentucky Waltz." Monroe's own songs include "Blue Moon of Kentucky" (memorably covered by Elvis Presley) and "I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling." Several members of his early groups went on to distinguished careers, including guitarist/vocalist Lester Flatt and banjo player Earl Scruggs, who has been credited with popularizing the three-finger bluegrass picking style for the banjo. Monroe was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.

See biographies by R. D. Smith (2000) and T. Ewing (2018); N. V. Rosenberg, Bluegrass: A History (1985); Rooney, J., Bossmen: Bill Monroe and Muddy Waters (1991); T. Ewing, ed., The Bill Monroe Reader (2000); The Music of Bill Monroe: From 1936 to 1994 (4 CDs, 1994); High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music (documentary film, 1994).

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