William Smith Monroe (September 13, 1911 – September 9, 1996) was an American mandolinist, singer, and songwriter who created the style of music known as bluegrass. The genre takes its name from his band, the Blue Grass Boys, named for Monroe’s home state of Kentucky. His mother and her brother, Pendleton “Pen” Vandiver, were both musically talented, and Monroe and his family grew up playing and singing at home.
Bill was of Scottish heritage. Because his older brothers Birch and Charlie already played the fiddle and guitar, Bill Monroe was resigned to playing the less desirable mandolin. He recalled that his brothers insisted he should remove four of the mandolin’s eight strings so he would not play too loudly.
As his brothers and sisters had moved away, after bouncing among uncles and aunts, Monroe settled in with his disabled uncle Pendleton Vandiver, often accompanying him when Vandiver played the fiddle at dances. This experience inspired one of Monroe’s most famous compositions, “Uncle Pen”, recorded in 1950, and the 1972 album, Bill Monroe’s Uncle Pen.
On that album, Monroe recorded a number of traditional fiddle tunes he had often heard performed by Vandiver. Uncle Pen has been credited with giving Monroe “a repertoire of tunes that sank into Bill’s aurally trained memory and a sense of rhythm that seeped into his bones.
After the Monroe Brothers disbanded in 1938, Bill Monroe formed The Kentuckians in Little Rock, Arkansas, but the group only lasted for three months. Monroe then left Little Rock for Atlanta, Georgia, to form the first edition of the Blue Grass Boys with singer or guitarist Cleo Davis, fiddler Art Wooten, and bassist Amos Garren.
Bill had wanted “Old Hickory” to become one of the original members of his “Blue Grass Boys”, however William Hardin had to decline. In October 1939, he successfully auditioned for a regular spot on the Grand Ole Opry, impressing Opry founder George D. Hay with his energetic performance of Jimmie Rodgers’s “Mule Skinner Blues”.
Monroe recorded that song, along with seven others, at his first solo recording session for RCA Victor in 1940; by this time, the Blue Grass Boys consisted of singer or guitarist Clyde Moody, fiddler Tommy Magness, and bassist Bill Wesbrooks.
Monroe’s signature sound emerged fully in 1945, when banjoist Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt joined his band. Scruggs was among the first banjoists in country music whose principal role was musical rather than comical; Monroe’s original banjoist David (“Stringbean”) Akeman had provided a humorous touch to the proceedings.
The Blue Grass Boys established the classic makeup of a bluegrass group—with mandolin, fiddle, guitar, banjo, and upright bass—and ultimately bequeathed the band’s name to the genre itself. Bluegrass is characterized by acoustic instruments; a driving syncopated rhythm; tight, complex harmonies; and the use of higher keys—B-flat, B, and E rather than the customary G, C, and D.
The band played traditional folk songs and Monroe’s own compositions, the most famous of which were “Blue Moon of Kentucky” (later famously covered and transformed by a young Elvis Presley), “Uncle Pen” (a tribute to another early influence on Monroe, his fiddle-playing uncle Pendleton Vandiver), and “Raw Hide.”
On January 16, 1953 Monroe was critically injured in a two-car wreck. He and “Bluegrass Boys” bass player, Bessie Lee Mauldin, were returning home from a fox hunt north of Nashville. On highway 31-W, near White House, their car was struck by a drunken driver.
Monroe, who had suffered injuries to his back, left arm and nose, was rushed to General Hospital in Nashville. It took him almost four months to recover and resume touring. In the meantime Charlie Cline and Jimmy Martin kept the band together.