Charlie & Bill Monroe

Bill Monroe (1911- 1996) and his brothers Charlie and Birch grew up in Ohio County, KY. The brothers learned to play mandolin, fiddle, and guitar and to sing old songs from their mother and her brother Uncle Pen. Their parents died when Bill was ten, and Charlie and Birch headed north looking for work while Bill lived with Uncle Pen. Bill continued to play old-time dance music with his uncle; "We used to ride mule and play for square dances around the county." Bill picked up a range of influences during this time, learning to play the blues on the fiddle and guitar from Arnold Schultz and practicing Sacred Harp and sharp-note singing in churches.

In 1929 when he turned 18, Bill moved to Indiana to join his brothers, and the trio began performing on a local station in Gary, IN. The brothers then were hired by WLS's National Barn Dance in Chicago as exhibition square dancers for barnstorming shows and began to fill in for musicians when they were needed. By the time they were playing regularly for WLS, Birch had left the group. From there the Monroe Brothers began touring the Midwest and the South; they would get a regular show on a local station and then tour extensively in the region before moving on to the next station. The brothers began to attract attention and started recording for RCA Victor in 1936. Two years later they split up. Bill moved to Arkansas and formed the Kentuckians, working first at KARK in Little Rock and then moving to Atlanta where he formed the first version of his Blue Grass Boys. In 1939, they tried out for the Grand Ole Opry; George Hay, who produced the show, told Monroe "If you ever leave the Opry, it'll be because you fired yourself."

Hear the Monroe Brothers' "Six White Horses" or "Cryin' Holy Unto My Lord"

Monroe is most famous for creating bluegrass music (although it was not labeled as such until many years later). Despite the notion that bluegrass is a traditional style, Monroe mixed elements of old-time string bands with the blues, rural spiritual singing, and jazz solos. He abandoned the breakdowns and "hootin' and hollerin'" that characterized rural string band music for carefully rehearsed numbers that incorporated virtuoso solos by each player. Monroe also pushed the mandolin to the foreground where the fiddle usually dominated country string-bands. His sound though did not really cohere until 1942 when he added banjo player "Stringbean" Akeman to the group, and it took Earl Scruggs, who joined in 1945, to make bluegrass synonymous with the banjo. Monroe continued to perform at the Opry and record with versions of the Blue Grass Boys through 1996; during that time nearly every influential bluegrass musician spent some time as a member of Monroe's Blue Grass Boys.

The Carter Family | Bill Monroe | Roy Acuff | John Lomax | Woody Guthrie

Hillbillies on the Radio | Country & Western | A National Culture?