Bill Monroe And Bluegrass
By: Roughstock Staff
One of Monroe's early influences was a local black musician, Arnold Schultz, whom he joined on several gigs. At this time, Monroe was also influenced by performers such as Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers. In 1934, Radio WLS in Chicago offered him (along with brothers Birch and Charlie) full-time employment. Birch decided to leave the music industry, but Charlie and Bill continued on as the Monroe Brothers until 1938. Then, Bill formed the Kentuckians and moved to Radio KARK in Atlanta, where the first of the Blue Grass Boys line-ups was evolved. In 1939, he auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry and George Hay was impressed enough to sign him.
By 1945, Monroe's style had undergone several changes. Most notable was the addition of Earl Scruggs, with a driving banjo style, putting the final, distinctive seal on Monroe's bluegrass sound. Flatt and Scruggs remained with Monroe until 1948. Among his best known songs from the period were two odes to his home state: "Blue Moon of Kentucky" (click here to listen) and "I'm Going Back to Old Kentucky."
After signing with Decca Records in 1949, Monroe teamed with Jimmy Martin and entered into the golden age of his career. He wrote "Uncle Pen" (click here to listen), "Roanoke," "Scotland," "My Little Georgia Rose," "Walking In Jerusalem," and "I'm Working On a Building." The latter two compositions were among numerous religious songs that stood as the backbone of Monroe's catalog. Throughout his career, he toured internationally and set the tone for the bluegrass format with his sad, lonesome singing and masterful mandolin playing.
Monroe was elected to the Country Music Hall Of Fame (1970), the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1971) and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1997), honors that signified his tremendous influence on popular music. On August 13, 1986, one month to the day before his 75th birthday, the US Senate passed a resolution noting his achievements "as a musician, showman, composer, and teacher, Mr. Monroe has been a cultural figure and force of signal importance in our time."
Monroe's protogees, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs pioneered a particular type of bluegrass under his leadership -- especially Scruggs' "three-finger banjo" technique -- and thus helped to popularize bluegrass in the 1940s. Both came from highly musical families; Lester's parents both played the banjo (in the old 'frailing' style) and Earl came from an area east of the Appalachians which was already using a three-finger style on the five-string banjo.
In 1943, Lester Flatt and his wife Gladys were hired by Charlie Monroe to sing harmony and play harmonica on his shows. Soon, Flatt tired of the travelling and quit, then procured a position with a North Carolina radio station. It was there that he received a telegram from Bill Monroe asking him to come and play on the Grand Ole Opry.
Scruggs had played with his brothers from the age of six; at 15, he was playing on a North Carolina radio station with the Carolina Wildcats. After the war, Scruggs appeared with John Miller on Radio WSM in Nashville. Miller then stopped touring and Earl, out of work, was hired by Monroe.
In 1948, within weeks of each other, the pair resigned from Monroe's contract to escape the constant traveling. Almost inevitably the two then decided to team up and do some radio work. They recruited ex-Monroe men Jim Shumate (fiddle) and Howard Watts (a.k.a. Cedric Rainwater on bass), and moved to Hickory, North Carolina, when they were joined by Mac Wiseman. In 1948, they made their first recordings for Mercury Records
(Click here to listen to "I Found Her When The Snow Was On The Ground").
The band, Foggy Mountain Boys, took its name from an old Carter Family tune, "Foggy Mountain Top." In 1950, they were offered a lucrative contract by Columbia Records, a recording association that lasted 20 years. In 1953, the band began broadcasting "Martha White Biscuit Time" on WSM, a show which not only ran for years, but which saw them come into country music prominence. Flatt and Scruggs were invited to the Grand Ole Opry in 1955.
They consolidated their position as leaders of the bluegrass movement and sold a vast number of records. By the end of the '60s (mainly pushed by Earl), they began experimenting with new folks songs, drums and gospel-style harmonies in an effort to build on a younger audience. Some of their older fans were unhappy about the changes, and in 1969, they split up. Lester, who died in 1979, returned to a more traditional sound, forming the Nashville Grass, composed mainly of former members of the Foggy Mountain Boys. Earl defiantly went off in new directions with his Earl Scruggs Review. In recent years, Scruggs has stepped away from the spotlight while his sons have made their mark as songwriters, producers and multi-instrumentalists in country music.