Blue Grass Music
The virtual base on which the whole of bluegrass music rests, William Smith (Bill) Monroe was born at Rosine, Kentucky, on September 13, 1911, the youngest of eight children. Brother Charlie was next youngest, having been born eight years earlier. This gap, coupled with Bill's poor eyesight, inhibited the youngest son from many of the usual play activities and gave him an introverted nature which carried through into later life.
Aside from his musical family, one of Monroe's early influences was a black musician from Rosine, Arnold Schultz. Bill would gig with him and rated him a fine musician with an unrivalled feel for the blues. At this time he also started to hear gramophone records featuring such performers as Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers.
In 1934, Radio WLS in Chicago, for whom the three brothers (Birch on fiddle, Charlie on guitar, and Bill on mandolin) had been working on a semi-professional basis, offered them full-time employment. Birch decided to give up music, but Charlie and Bill reforemed as the Monroe Brothers. In 1938, they went their separate ways. Bill formed the Kentuckians and moved to Radio KARK, Atlanta Georgia, where the first of the Blue Grass Boys line-ups was evolved. Bill also began to sing lead and to take mandolin solos rather than just remaining part of the general sound. In 1939, he auditioned for the Opry and George Hay was impressed enough to sign him.
By 1945, Monroe's style had undergone several changes. Most notable was the addition of Earl Scruggs, with a driving banjo style, putting the final, distinctive seal on Monroe's bluegrass sound. Flatt and Scruggs remained with Bill until 1948. Among Monroe's best known songs from the period is "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Included here is another of Monroe's hits: "I'm Going Back to Old Kentucky."
(83k thumbnail) (611k longer version).
After signing with Decca Records in 1949, Monroe teamed with Jimmy Martin, and entered into his golden age for compositions. He wrote "Uncle Pen," "Roanoke," "Scotland," "My Little Georgia Rose," "Walking In Jerusalem," and "I'm Working On a Building," the last two being religious 'message' songs, always part of the Monroe tradition from the earlier days.
Bill Monroe was elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1970. His contribution to country music is inestimable. On August 13, 1986, one month to the day before his 75th birthday, the US Senate passed a resolution recognizing "his many contributions to American culture and his many ways of helping American people enjoy themselves." It also said, "As a musician, showman, composer, and teacher, Mr. Monroe has been a cultural figure and force of signal importance in our time."
Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs pioneered a particular type of bluegrass under Bill Monroe's leadership -- especially Scruggs' "three-finger banjo" technique -- and thus helped to popularize bluegrass immensely. Both came from highly musical families. Lester's parents both played the banjo (in the old 'frailing' style) and Lest practiced on both guitar and banjo. Earl came from an area east of the Appalachians which was already using a three-finger style on the five-string banjo.
In 1943, Lester and his wife Gladys were hired by Charlie Monroe. Lester sang harmony and played mandolin. He tired of the travelling and quit, then procured a position with a North Carolina radio station. It was there that he received a telegram from Bill Monroe asking Lester to come and play with him on the Grand Ole Opry.
Earl had played with his brothers from the age of six and by 15 he was playing on a North Carolina radio station with the Carolina Wildcats. After the war, Scruggs appeared with John Miller on Radio WSM in Nashville. Miller then stopped touring and Earl, out of work, was hired by Monroe.
In 1948, within weeks of each other, Earl and Lester resigned from Monroe to escape the constant travelling (Monroe has always been a dedicated touring man). Almost inevitably the two then decided to team up and do some radio work. They recruited ex-Monroe men Jim Shumate (fiddle) and Howard Watts (a.k.a. Cedric Rainwater on bass), and then moved to Hickory, North Carolina, when the were joined by Mac Wiseman. That year, 1948, they made their first recordings for Mercury Records.
The band took its name from an old Carter Family tune, "Foggy Mountain Top," calling themselves the Foggy Mountain Boys. In 1950, they were offered a lucrative contract by Columbia Records, a recording association that was to last for 20 years. In 1953, the band began broadcasting "Martha White Biscuit Time" on WSM, a show which not only ran for years, but which saw them come into country music prominence. Flatt and Scruggs and their band became members of the Grand Ole Opry in 1955, and were winning numerous fan polls and industry awards.
They consolidated their position as leaders of the bluegrass movement and sold a vast number of records. By the end of the '60s (mainly pushed by Earl), they began experimenting with new folks songs, drums and gospel-style harmonies in an effort to build on a younger audience. They appeared many times on "The Beverly Hillbillies"opening paths to many people with their style of music. Some of their older fans were unhappy about the changes, and in 1969, they split up. Lester, who died in 1979, returned to a more traditional sound, forming the Nashville Grass, composed mainly of the Foggy Mountain Boys. Earl defiantly went off in new directions with his Earl Scruggs Review. In recent years, Scruggs has cut back on his activities, while his sons have made their mark as songwriters, producers and multi-instrumentalists in country music.