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Breaking Down Bluegrass:
The Invention of a Genre from Mountain Ballads to Bill Monroe

(Released September 2011)

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  by Lorna Dries  

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The Monroe Brothers

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Bill Monroe was the youngest of eight children born to James Buchanan "Buck" and Malissa (Vandiver) Monroe. The family hailed from Western Kentucky, across the state from the Appalachian mountain range. Monroe’s mother Malissa and her brother Pendleton “Pen” Vandiver were very musical and passed this on to Malissa’s children. The youngest four children were especially interested in music, and each took up an instrument. Rosenberg describes the family dynamics that led to Bill’s choice of instrument: “[Bill] would have liked to specialize in the fiddle or the guitar, but as the youngest and smallest he was … assigned the mandolin in the family orchestra” (28). The mandolin was not the most prominent of instruments in old-time music, but there were instances of mandolin playing in the region (Price 15).

Monroe Brothers
The Monroe Brothers, c. 1936

Monroe’s mother died when he was 10. Several years after her death, Bill began to play accompaniment for his Uncle Pen’s fiddle at local dances. Pen would be Bill’s most formative musical influence, prompting him to write the song “Uncle Pen.” He also cited another local musician as one of his seminal influences. Arnold Schultz was a black coal miner who played the guitar and fiddle in the evening. Bill accompanied Schultz at dances at well and was local in his admiration of Shultz’s virtuosity (Rosenberg 28). These influences very well may have informed Bill’s mandolin playing style. The instrument had been used to play block chords as accompaniment. However, Bill tuned the mandolin as one would a fiddle, giving it the potential to be played as a lead instrument. Bill worked on his technique so that he could play blues notes, driving rhythms, and sustained tremolos (Price 32).

Monroe’s father died when Bill was 16. He and his brothers, Birch and Charlie, moved to a Chicago suburb to find work. There, they found an outlet for their musical abilities on the radio program the WLS Barn Dance, which would later move to Nashville in 1939 and be known by a different name: The Grand Ole Opry. Bill, Birch, and Charlie kept their labor jobs, although they continued to play and tour as much as they could. Birch decided to leave the trio, which left Charlie and Bill to form a brother duet, a type of musical act that was very popular during the Depression era (Price 31). The two were offered a sponsorship from Texas Crystals, better known as Crazy Water Crystals, and became full-time professional musicians in 1934. The Monroe Brothers gained popularity, becoming regulars on several radio programs and recording for Victor Records (Rosenberg 35). The brothers’ repertoire was half religious songs, with very few original songs mixed. However, their recordings of songs such as “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and “New River Train” helped to make those tunes standards in many other upland Southern musicians’ repertoires.

Bill and Charlie Monroe
The Monroe Brothers perform "What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul?" YouTube

In 1939, Charlie and Bill lost their manager and, subsequently, split ways. Rosenberg describes the breakup as “the subject of legends endemic to the country music business” and says that Charlie’s version of what happened—“We were hot-headed and mean as snakes”—may be the most accurate depiction of the split (35). Whatever the cause, the split left Bill to experiment with a sound that Price describes as including “Carter Family harmonies and instrumentals, Jimmie Rodgers’ yodeling blues, Western swing, and Dixieland jazz and ragtime” (32).

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