Charlie Monroe-The Uncle of Bluegrass

by Andy Bing

Bill Monroe is called the “Father of Bluegrass” but his earliest recordings were not what we now think of as bluegrass. These records were made in the late 1930s and featured a vocal duet with Bill’s older brother Charlie. Together the brothers cut 60 songs (no instrumentals) featuring Charlie’s lead voice and guitar with Bill’s tenor voice and mandolin. Vocal duets, especially brother duets, were then very popular in country music. The Monroe Brothers’ innovative and powerful vocal and instrumental sound stood out from the prevailing genteel style of duets like the Blue Sky Boys. Despite their popularity, the brothers were unable to get along and parted ways in 1938.

Each then formed a band-after a short-lived false start, Bill formed the Blue Grass Boys. For his part, Charlie formed the Kentucky Pardners. The brothers were always competitive-Charlie recorded first, in 1938, to Bill’s 1940, but Bill joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1939, an accolade Charlie never received. And, of course, Bill and the Blue Grass Boys went on to make music history. Bill’s late 1940s band with Lester Flatt on guitar and Earl Scruggs on banjo established a hot new sound that quickly became known as bluegrass, a distinctive genre of country music. Although Charlie’s music evolved over the years, he largely avoided the bluegrass sound that his brother pioneered. By the late 1950s he was largely retired, while Bill remained active and creative until shortly before he died in 1996. As Bill’s brother, Charlie is fairly called the “Uncle of Bluegrass.”

This column examines Charlie Monroe’s music, including the music he made after he and Bill split up. Although he lacked Bill’s creative musical genius, Charlie Monroe deserves to be remembered for those of his songs that have become bluegrass standards. (A note on sources: the most comprehensive written account of Charlie’s life and music that I am aware of is the excellent book, written by Dick Spottswood, that accompanies the Bear Family CD box set containing Charlie’s recordings between 1938-1956. Spottswood’s book itself draws liberally from an interview of Charlie conducted by Douglas B. Green, former Blue Grass Boy and co-founder of the western band Riders In The Sky. The Bear Family book also contains a detailed discography covering Charlie’s 1938-1956 recordings prepared by Spottswood, Richard Weize, and Dave Sax. I have drawn on the Bear Family book in preparing this column.)

Charlie Monroe was born in 1903, the fifth of eight children of J.B. Monroe and Malissa Vandiver Monroe. Bill, born in 1911, was the youngest child. The Vandivers were a musical family. Malissa played fiddle, accordion, and harmonica, and her brother Pendleton (Uncle Pen) fiddled. Both were highly regarded local musicians. Charlie began playing guitar as a boy; his brother Birch, two years older, took up the fiddle, and young Bill ended up with the mandolin because no other sibling wanted it. The Monroe family led a hard working life on a 655-acre western Kentucky farm that also had timber and coal. By the end of the 1920s J.B. and Malissa had died and the three brothers were working at oil refineries in the Indiana suburbs of Chicago.

Charlie, Birch and Bill began their entertainment careers as square dancers on the WLS Barn Dance, Chicago’s version of the Grand Ole Opry. They also began playing music locally, but Birch left the group when they had an offer to play radio programs in Iowa. Charlie and Bill then quit their refinery jobs for good and the Monroe Brothers duet was born. As their popularity increased, they moved to radio stations in the Carolinas and in 1936 they began recording. According to both Bill and Charlie (in separate interviews), Victor’s talent scout and producer Eli Oberstein wired them, “We must have the Monroe Brothers on record. We won’t take no for an answer. Answer requested.”

The Monroe Brothers recordings and shows quickly attracted a large following because of their vocal and instrumental virtuosity. Charlie’s galloping guitar, punctuated with snappy bass runs, perfectly supported their strong voices and Bill’s fast clean mandolin picking. Their brother duet style was energetic, sometimes verging on frantic, compared to most of the other duet acts then popular. Some, like the Blue Sky Boys, amped up their music to compete with the Monroes. “My Long Journey Home” and “I Have Found The Way” illustrate how exciting the Monroe Brothers’ music was. The latter, a gospel song, begins with Charlie’s languid guitar strum and then picks up speed like a train pulling out of the station.

Charlie and Bill had very different personalities. Bill was a taciturn loner, Charlie a gregarious extrovert. Maybe that was what drove them to go their separate ways. Or maybe it was “creative differences,” since Bill by now had definite ideas about the music he wanted to play and Charlie may have been reluctant to take musical direction from his kid brother. In any case, the brothers called it quits in 1938. Bill went on to his legendary career, and Charlie….

Charlie put together the first edition of the Kentucky Pardners with mandolinist Zeke Morris, by then a veteran of Mainers’ Mountaineers and the Morris Brothers, and guitarist Bill Calhoun. This trio recorded in 1938 and 1939 under the name “Charlie Monroe’s Boys.” Records like “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone” and “Guided By Love” (a duet with Morris) show that Charlie was then trying hard to preserve the Monroe Brothers sound, both vocally and instrumentally.

Charlie didn’t record again until 1946, and the post-war music scene was very different from the brother duet era of the 1930s. A new style of country music, honky tonk, was coming on strong during and after the war years thanks to singers like Ernest Tubb, and electric guitars were becoming more common. Charlie had continued to perform during the war and the Kentucky Pardners had included some extraordinary sidemen who later became much better known. His most famous mandolinist was Lester Flatt (!), who played with Charlie in the mid-40s before he became guitarist and lead singer with the Blue Grass Boys and a founding member of Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Charlie also employed future Foggy Mountain Boy mandolinist and tenor singer Curly Seckler, as well as Ira Louvin (who made his recording debut playing mandolin with Charlie), and mandolin virtuoso Red Rector.

Charlie’s post-war bands made some concessions to modernity. He often included electric guitar and electric non-pedal steel guitar on his recordings. And he is credited with a number of songs that later became bluegrass standards. These recordings are sufficient to secure Charlie’s place in the bluegrass pantheon. Perhaps Charlie’s most famous recordings are “Bringing In The Georgia Mail,” credited to Charlie but written by his music publisher Fred Rose, and “I’m Coming Back But I Don’t Know When,” also credited to Charlie. Charlie popularized “Down In The Willow Garden” (with Charlie’s lead guitar) and “Red Rocking Chair,” but versions of these songs had been recorded by others before him. Two other gems, “Rosa Lee McFall” and “Down In Caroline,” are also credited to Charlie, and these tunes deserve to be better known. Finally, “Old Kentucky Bound” and “That’s What I Like About You,” both credited to Charlie, make fine bluegrass numbers; see for example the Warrior River Boys rip-snorting 1989 cover of the latter song (complete with old time banjo).

One thing that is clear from these recordings is how much Charlie sounded like Bill. Their close vocal blend had helped make them a legendary brother duet and may also explain in part Bill’s continued animosity-he still was trying to prove himself and didn’t like the similar sounding competition. By the mid 1950s Charlie was mostly retired from performing. In those years he and Bill, still at odds, nevertheless occasionally reunited for live duet shows at country music parks. Charlie made a few records in the 1960s but also sold his precious pre-war Martin D-45 guitar to Red Allen. Ralph Rinzler recruited him for a Monroe Brothers gathering at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife in 1969, together with Bill and Birch, and in the 70’s Jimmy Martin helped him get some work at bluegrass festivals. But Charlie’s health declined along with his fortunes, and he died in 1975. Today, nearly half a century later, the best of his music continues to inspire bluegrass musicians.

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.

2 Responses

  • Great topic and great article Andy. I love Charlie’s music and guitar playing. His show business nickname was “The Voice Like a Pearl”!!!

    Charlie’s wonderful D45 Martin guitar is now owned and played by none other than Marty Stuart. It passed from Red Allen to Hank Williams Jr and then to Johnny Cash and then to Marty.

  • Thanks Dick. That D-45 sure passed through some legendary hands before ending up in the just the right hands now. Thanks for the further history of Charlie’s guitar.

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