The Big Bang Theory of Bluegrass

If the “big bang theory” helps to explain the origin of the universe, perhaps “the big bang theory of bluegrass” will shed some light on the origin of the bluegrass music universe.

First, let me say that there are two schools of thought as to the origins of bluegrass music. One has Bill Monroe single-handedly inventing bluegrass music around 1945. The other takes a more evolutionary approach, with a number of musicians and bands contributing to the sound we now call “bluegrass.” In particular, this approach points to Wade and JE Mainer’s Mountaineers as the first band that had all the ingredients of bluegrass music going back at least to 1935. For this article, let’s put aside the evolutionary argument, and concentrate on the theory that Bill Monroe invented bluegrass.

Cleo Davis & Bill Monroe
It is commonly known that Bill and Charlie, the Monroe Brothers, had a contentious and turbulent relationship. Perhaps Charlie said it best, “We were hot-headed and mean as snakes.” In early 1938, they went their separate ways. To replace Bill, Charlie hired Zeke Morris to play mandolin and sing tenor. Interestingly enough, Zeke had been a mainstay of Mainer’s Mountaineers.

Bill Monroe, on the other hand, was looking for a lead singer and guitar player to replace his brother Charlie. To accomplish his goal, Bill placed a small ad in the Atlanta, Georgia, newspaper looking for someone who played guitar and sang old-time songs. Among the musicians who showed up at Bill’s small travel trailer to audition was a nervous young man named Cleo Davis. Bill hired him on the spot because Bill’s wife, Carolyn, reinforced Bill’s opinion that Davis’ voice sounded almost exactly like that of brother Charlie Monroe.

It is my contention that the short audition of Cleo Davis in Bill’s small trailer in 1938 is the big bang of bluegrass. It is when Bill hired the first of a long line of sidemen who would make up Bill’s legendary band, The Blue Grass Boys. The rest, my friends, is history.

Bill Monroe, Cleo Davis et al
Let me tell you how I became involved in all this. In late 1981, I received a personal letter from Cleo Davis, who by then was calling himself

JC Davis. He had read an article I had written for Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine on Wiley and Zeke, the Morris Brothers. Cleo or JC contacted me in an effort to reestablish contact with the Morris Brothers, whom he had not seen since that late l930s. In addition to providing him with contact information to get in touch with the Morris Brothers, I asked if I could interview him for another article in Bluegrass Unlimited . He readily agreed and seemed anxious to tell his story. At the time he was living in Lakeland, Florida, and I made my home near Asheville, North Carolina. Because of the difficulty of getting together, I asked him if I could send him some questions via letter, and if he could record his answers on a cassette tape. He quickly consented to this somewhat unorthodox interview method. Many letters and cassette tapes went back and forth, and my article finally appeared in Bluegrass Unlimited in February, 1982. As far as I know, I was the only one to interview Cleo or JC Davis about his role in the origins of Bill’s band, the Bluegrass Boys. Unfortunately, he passed away a short time later.

Bill Monroe, Cleo Davis, Art Wooten, Amos Garren
Thanks to the wonders of computers, you can actually listen to those tapes I made by going to this site. Simply type in “Cleo Davis,” and you’re good to go. To read my entire article in Bluegrass Unlimited, with all the details of the “Big Bang of Bluegrass” theory go to my website. Click on “Articles” and then click the article, “Cleo Davis, the Original Bluegrass Boy.” This information can also be found in the book, The Rural Roots of Bluegrass by yours truly, Wayne Erbsen.

Wayne Erbsen

Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really about fifty years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written thirty songbooks and instructions books for banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin. Check out his web site at or email or call for a FREE catalog: (828)299-7031 or

2 Responses

  • JC Davis is my maternal grandfather. His nickname was “Peewee”. When he was married to Lucille Porter, he had three daughters, Brenda, my mom Rita, and Darlene. He literally went out for cigarettes and milk and never came back, that old trope. Mom and her sisters and Grandma made peace with him before his death at his request. They all maintained a wonderful relationship with his family, especially “Granny Davis”, his mother, whom I remember vaguely (I’m 50 now) as a sweet woman, thin and tall like him.
    His brother Hubert founded Hubert Davis and the Season Travelers, with his wife Ruby and their daughter Shelby. They had a gig in Nashville for decades and recorded several albums. Hubert recorded with Bill as well, and my mother remembers meeting Bill.

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