Bill Monroe: Proto Rock and Roller

Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in addition to the Country Music and Bluegrass Halls of Fame. His presence in the Rock Hall may surprise some folks but on reflection it’s fair to say he belongs there. Monroe influenced many of the first generation of rock and rollers, including most famously Elvis Presley. Elvis covered one of Bill’s signature tunes and made it a bigger hit than Bill had. This column examines Bill Monroe’s position as one of the (many) uncles of rock and roll.

Rock music derives most directly from blues and rhythm and blues. Bill Monroe was playing blues early on. He grew up hearing the music around his home in western Kentucky. As a young musician he played guitar back up for Arnold Schulz, an African American who was noted in that part of Kentucky for his prowess on the fiddle and especially for his innovative guitar work. Although no recordings of Schulz have ever surfaced, his guitar style heavily influenced other Kentucky musicians like Mose Rager, Ike Everly and, most famously, Merle Travis.

Bill Monroe absorbed the blues along with the old time fiddle tunes his Uncle Pen played. Bill first recorded in the late 1930s with brother Charlie as the Monroe Brothers. The 60 songs (no instrumentals) that they cut were not especially bluesy, with the exception of 1937’s “Sinner You Better Get Ready,” where Bill first recorded some blues licks that later became hallmarks of his mandolin style. When Bill formed his own band, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, in 1938, blues got a much more prominent place in the repertoire. Three songs that Bill and the band recorded in 1940, “Mule Skinner Blues (Monroe’s reworking of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 8”), “Dog House Blues,” and “Six White Horses” (featuring Clyde Moody’s bluesy guitar licks and vocal), are blues numbers and a fourth from that session, “Tennessee Blues,” was Bill’s first recorded instrumental. A year later, the band cut “Blue Yodel No. 7” (aka “Anniversary Blue Yodel”) and another mandolin instrumental blues, “Honky Tonk Swing” (featured in last month’s column). One can assume that Bill recorded these blues numbers because he liked them and believed that they would sell.

Bill didn’t record again until early 1945. In the interval, he and the band had honed their blues chops, and this band had a swing groove that sounds very different from much of Monroe’s other work. “Rocky Road Blues” started the session off with a bang. I think this song in particular was what Ricky Skaggs had in mind when he said that in the mid-1940s Monroe was playing “acoustic rockabilly.” Skaggs’s point is well taken-the overall attitude and feel of this song anticipates rockabilly by several years.

On “True Life Blues,” Monroe alternates hot instrumental choruses with Chubby Wise on fiddle. (Wise had played swing before he went to work with Monroe and he credited Bill with teaching him how to play bluegrass fiddle.) This song in particular sounds like something that Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys might have recorded. Also recorded at this session was “Blue Grass Special,” another blazing Monroe mandolin blues (also featured in last month’s column).

In 1946, Monroe made his first recordings with the “Original Bluegrass Band” that included Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs along with Chubby Wise. That session also opened with a hot 12 bar blues, “Heavy Traffic Ahead.” The pickers begin that song with short riffs on guitar (the first recording of Lester’s famous “G run”), mandolin, banjo, and fiddle each taking a piece of the intro after which the fiddle plays a rocking chorus. Some of the blues banjo licks that Scruggs later refined in the Flatt and Scruggs recordings “Don’t Get Above Your Raising” and “Foggy Mountain Special” several years later appear for the first time on this recording.

At this session, Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys also recorded a very non-bluesy waltz, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” This song, along with “Kentucky Waltz,” from the 1945 session, were Bill’s best selling and most famous songs. But something unforeseen happened later with “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” In 1954, 19-year-old Elvis Presley, who had grown up listening to Bill Monroe, covered the song in a jumping rockabilly style. Sun Records in Memphis released Elvis’s recording as the B-side of his first single; the A side was a straight blues, Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama.” That record was a hit for Elvis and helped launch his legendary career as one of the founding fathers of rock and roll.

The story is told that, at about this time, Elvis met Bill Monroe at the Opry and nervously apologized to him for dramatically rearranging Bill’s song. Bill magnanimously told Elvis not to worry, that if the song helped Elvis get his start, Bill was for him 100 percent. Bill admitted that his royalty checks from the Elvis recording were “powerful,” which perhaps salved any sting from the younger man’s having sold many more copies of Bill’s song than Bill had. Also, perhaps, Bill realized that Elvis had done with “Blue Moon” what Bill had done with the Jimmie Rodgers tune, “Mule Skinner Blues,” that is, rearrange an earlier hit from one style of music to create a new style of music, and ignite a career in the process. In any event, Bill liked Elvis’s arrangement enough that later in 1954 he recorded a new triple fiddle arrangement of “Blue Moon” that starts out as a waltz and then breaks into an up-tempo 4/4 rhythm after the first chorus. Bill also encouraged the Stanley Brothers to record the tune. The Stanley version is a little closer to Elvis’s cover than to either of Bill’s versions.

Buddy Holly was another founding father of rock and roll; his influence was enormous, especially so given that he was only 22 when he died. Both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones recorded Buddy Holly songs early on. Buddy Holly was a Bill Monroe fan. As a teenager, Holly played mandolin and banjo in addition to guitar and had a radio program in Lubbock on which he performed Monroe’s version of “Footprints In The Snow,” among others. Holly shows the instrumental side of his Monroe influence prominently in his electric guitar solo on “Peggy Sue,” one of his biggest hits. Compare Holly’s right hand groove with Bill’s galloping mandolin solos on “Blue Grass Breakdown,” especially the second half of Bill’s last solo. Given Holly’s familiarity with Bill’s work, it seems reasonable to infer that, consciously or unconsciously, he had assimilated some of Monroe’s powerful rhythms.

Monroe also influenced rock and roll singers, as well as instrumentalists, although here his influence was more attenuated. Ricky Skaggs points out that the Monroe Brothers’ duet singing influenced many country duets that followed, including especially the Louvin Brothers, who themselves heavily influenced the Everly Brothers. The Everlys were foundational rock and rollers, and their influence in turn was profound, showing most obviously in the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel.

Finally, Bill Monroe’s influence on rock and roll was not limited to the music itself. Bill’s “attitude” prefigured that of the stereotypical rock and roller by many years. In his early days, Bill could be as remote, terse, uncommunicative, intimidating, and just plain scary as any punk rocker. Bluegrass mandolinist and folklorist Ralph Rinzler, who was briefly Bill’s manager, spoke of Bill’s “savage, arrogant, intransigent spirit.” Monroe could, and did, hold grudges against former sidemen for decades. His domestic life was chaotic, with most of the chaos self-created. In short, he was what would now be called a total badass. Perhaps most of the surly rock and roll musicians who came afterwards were not consciously emulating Monroe, but it’s fair to say that in this way too, for better or worse, Bill set the style for a musical generation. It’s true that Bill did mellow considerably as he got older. Finally being recognized as an important contributor to multiple styles of American music probably had a lot to do with that.

Andy Bing

Andy Bing has been playing bluegrass music for 40 years in the Hudson Valley region of New York. He plays mostly mandolin and dobro, as well as some banjo and guitar. He studied dobro in the Washington DC area with Seldom Scene dobro innovator Mike Auldridge, who remains his main inspiration on that instrument. On the mandolin Andy is a huge fan of Bill Monroe. In his other life Andy is a retired lawyer who worked in Albany for over 30 years.

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