Ira Gitlin

Bill Monroe: A Banjo Player's Appreciation

[from Banjo NewsLetter, Vol. XXIV-2, December 1996; reprinted with permission]

On the way back from the IBMA trade show this past September we stopped in Rosine, Kentucky, to pay our respects. I’d visited there in years past, so I knew where to look: several rows back from Pendleton Vandiver’s tombstone (“They hung up his fiddle, they hung up his bow/ They knew it was time for him to go”) and just a few paces from James B. and Malissa A. Monroe’s (“On Mother’s, ‘Gone but not forgotten,’/ On Dad’s, ‘We’ll meet again someday’”). Bill Monroe, who, during a six-decade career, had conceived, shaped, and presided over bluegrass music, had come home to rest. It was barely two weeks after the funeral, and the new grave was covered with bouquets, flat picks, and other tokens from well-wishers. Of course there was no headstone yet, but as the ancient Greek statesman Pericles once said, illustrious men have the whole world for their monument. Monroe’s real monument is erected anew whenever passionate amateurs gather in living rooms, church basements, or festival parking lots to jam; whenever Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, or Marty Stuart lift their voices on the Grand Ole Opry; whenever an oldies station broadcasts Elvis’ 1954 recording of “Blue Moon of Kentucky”; whenever a banjo rolls infectiously behind a TV commercial for fried chicken or pickup trucks.

The youngest of eight children, Monroe was relegated to the mandolin by his guitar- and fiddle-playing siblings. After his parents’ death, and musical apprenticeships with his Uncle Pen and Arnold Schultz (the latter, a local guitarist), he moved to Chicago to work in the oil refineries. He hit the road full-time in a duet with his older brother Charlie in 1934, and when violent quarrels split up the act four years later, he formed his own group. In 1939, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys joined WSM’s Grand Ole Opry on the strength of their breakneck picking and stratospheric singing. The group’s success, however, was eclipsed by the 1945-1948 lineup of the band, which featured Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. It was that group that made people take notice: Here was a new and distinctive type of music, and it was only natural that it should eventually be named after the band that introduced it. In the years that followed, Monroe composed much of the core bluegrass repertoire, both vocal and instrumental, and defined the mandolin’s role in the music. But by the late fifties Monroe, who stubbornly stuck to his own ideas, had been bypassed by rock ‘n’ roll and the Nashville sound. Not until the sixties would the folk music revival and the rise of bluegrass festivals bring him the recognition he deserved. From then on, as the acknowledged “Father of Bluegrass,” he continued his vigorous performance schedule until a stroke stilled his voice five months before his death.

More than a singer, mandolinist, composer, and bandleader, Monroe was a visionary. His goal was to create a portrait of the rural life and old-time music that had nurtured him. What he ended up with was more like an impressionist canvas than a photograph: It possessed an artistic truth more powerful than any mere literalism could have been. So compelling was Monroe’s vision, in fact, that countless fans and musicians have accepted it as the real thing, taken it for their very own, and allowed it to change their lives.

But Monroe was also, in the best sense, an opportunist. His vision was not so rigid as to reject innovations. So it was when a twenty-one year old Earl Scruggs came to Nashville with his highly developed but little-known Carolina banjo style. Monroe liked it, saw its possibilities, and made the banjo an indispensable part of the Blue Grass sound. He would do the same in years to come, making room for and showcasing the talents of Don Reno and Rudy Lyle, Don Stover and Lamar Grier, Bill Keith and Bob Black (to name but a few). We may debate whether Reno’s erratic flamboyance or Lyle’s rough homespun would have had the same impact as Scruggs’ classic elegance. This much, however seems clear: Whoever else might have arisen as the three-finger banjo standard bearer, he would have found his home in Monroe’s band.

Bill Monroe was, by all accounts, a complex man. Reportedly tight-fisted in business matters (a common trait among those who come of age in hard times), he could be generous to friends and strangers alike. He maintained a dignified, impassive presence, but his songs hint at a tempestuous private life. He could be curt and sharp with journalists, but patient with novice sidemen. He was the object of nearly religious veneration from thousands of fans around the world; he received the highest awards his professions could bestow, including induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame (1970) and the IBMA Hall of Honor (1991), and two Grammies. Yet to the very end, according to many who knew him, he felt the need to compete with others and prove himself. The little brother in Bill Monroe never really grew up.

This compulsion to show the world that he had the right stuff shines in Monroe’s music—not just in the higher keys and faster tempos, but especially in the indefinable rhythmic push, that “drive” that Scruggs-style banjo needs behind it. Monroe gave Scruggs more than just a 50,000-watt podium from which to address the world. He gave him a musical setting that supported his banjo genius as no other band could have done, as well as a resonant cultural context that imbued it with meaning.

Now, fifty years later, the Scruggs-Monroe combination seems as inevitable, as right as bacon and eggs, peanut butter and jelly, bagels and lox. But what if…? What if Scruggs—whose shy and retiring nature contrasts so strongly with Bill Monroe’s—had not decided to audition with the Blue Grass Boys? Without a Monroe to grab the public by the collar and insist, “You-all have got to listen to this boy!”, Scruggs might have been merely a brilliant footnote in country music history. And then what?

Without Scruggs’ example to follow, would Ralph Stanley today be a retired small-town veterinarian? Would Pete Wernick be a tweed-jacketed sociology professor who writes poetry on the side? Would Sammy Shelor and Scott Vestal be anonymous Telecaster-wielding Nashville sidemen? Would Alison Brown be living a life of quiet desperation as an investment banker? Would Béla Fleck have taken up the kazoo, and made it into a respected instrument? Would you be…? (Fill in the blank yourself.)

At the IBMA trade show this year I had the pleasure of shaking Earl Scruggs’ hand and telling him that his music changed my life. I never had the opportunity to say the same thing to Bill Monroe. Wherever he is, I suspect he’s beyond caring about such petty things, but just in case, I hope you’ll join me in saying it now.

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