Bill Monroe is known as the “Father of Bluegrass.” To my knowledge, bluegrass is the only musical genre whose existence is largely attributed to one person. Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have invented jazz, and W. C. Handy is sometimes credited with originating the blues, but jazz and blues are not usually thought of as having a single popularly acknowledged “Father.”
One can plausibly dispute the claim that Bill Monroe is the “Father of Bluegrass.” Wasn’t the Blue Grass Boys just one of a number of similar southern string bands active in the 1930s and 1940s? What about the contributions of Earl Scruggs and his fresh and exciting three finger banjo style? Didn’t the music become a recognized genre only after other early bands like those of the Stanley Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs helped popularize the music in the late 1940s and into the 1950s?
The answer to all these questions can be “yes” without negating Bill Monroe’s claim to bluegrass paternity. It is a fact that bluegrass as it exists today resulted from the contributions of many musicians. What sets Bill apart and justifies calling him the father of bluegrass is his role as the catalyst. Bill’s ambition, drive, vision, and creativity combined new and existing musical elements to create a sound that was distinctly different from that of the other southern string bands of the mid-40s.
The line up of the Blue Grass Boys that is credited by music historians as the very first bluegrass band came together in late 1945 when banjoist Earl Scruggs joined Bill on mandolin, Lester Flatt on guitar, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Howard Watts (who used the stage name Cedric Rainwater) on bass fiddle. But Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys had been on the Grand Ole Opry since 1939 and had first recorded in 1940 and 1941, well before Flatt and Scruggs joined. These early recordings already contained several important elements of the classic mid 40s band’s sound.
First, Bill had by the time of the 1940-41 recordings developed a mandolin style that was fast and driving on uptempo numbers and featured a powerful right hand attack. His style was heavily influenced by the old time fiddle and the blues he heard as a boy growing up in western Kentucky, as well as by more contemporary jazz sounds that began to be widely heard in the 1920s. Monroe had earned his reputation as a hot country mandolinist on the 60 vocal duet recordings he made with his older brother Charlie (on guitar) as the Monroe Brothers between 1936 and 1938. By the time of his 1940-41 Blue Grass Boy recordings his sound was bluesier, jazzier, and more more mandolinistic than that heard on his Monroe Brothers recordings. Bill recorded his very first mandolin instrumental, Tennessee Blues, and another hot mandolin blues, Honky Tonk Swing, during this time. And on Back Up And Push, a fiddle tune played very fast, Bill’s mandolin solo anticipates Raw Hide, Bill’s classic bluegrass mandolin tune, recorded years later.
Second, Chubby Wise was not Bill’s first fiddle virtuoso. The Blue Grass Boys featured a hot fiddler from the very start. The 1940-41 recordings featured Art Wooten (who later played with both the Stanley Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs) and Tommy Magness. The band’s recording of Katy Hill featured Magness’ hot and very fast fiddling. Monroe was justifiably proud of that recording, noting that his Katy Hill had a lot more in it than it ever had before. And Bill was one of the first to record the “Orange Blossom Special,” featuring Art Wooten on fiddle.
Third, Bill was already emphasizing his own and the band’s vocal prowess, including his vocal solos on tunes like “Mule Skinner Blues” and “Dog House Blues,” gospel quartets like “Crying Holy Unto My Lord,” and the solo blues “Six White Horses,” sung by composer Clyde Moody, then Bill’s guitarist, on the band’s 1940 recording. Much of what one hears in these early recordings is very different from the music Roy Acuff, Roy Hall, Bill’s brother Charlie, and the other country string band leaders of the day were playing. In its drive, rhythm, groove, and feel, it was unique; it was bluegrass.
Missing only was the driving sound of the five string banjo. Next week’s post will continue with the story of how Bill added the banjo, which Bill called, “the fifth child,” after mandolin, fiddle, guitar, and bass, to his band and completed the traditional five piece bluegrass ensemble.