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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 Blue Grass Boys

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After the break-up with Charlie, Bill moved to Atlanta and placed an ad in the paper looking for a guitarist and singer. Former farm hand Cleo Davis was hired as Bill’s replacement for Charlie. They were hired to do a daily 15-minute program, “Mountain Music Time,” on WWNC in Asheville, North Carolina, where the Monroe Brothers had had a steady gig. Davis believed that Monroe specifically sought to play in places where the Monroe Brothers’ frequented to “regain his popularity over the airwaves as he was building his own group” (Rosenberg 41). Monroe soon added fiddler Art Wooten and bass player Amos Garen. Although the string bass was not a common instrument used in string bands during the 1930s, its addition gave Monroe’s band a strong rhythmic foundation and also separated his sound from that of the Monroe Brothers. This was the first incarnation of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys.

Monroe had great control over his band’s sound: he worked with Davis on his guitar runs and, because Monroe’s mandolin was tuned the same as a fiddle, he could show Wooten how to bow the notes the way he wanted them. Monroe also chose gospel quartets as a solid part of the band’s repertoire, which were popular both with white and African-American audiences. This required much rehearsal and training. Although Monroe’s tenor voice was used as harmony during his stint with Charlie, Bill found that he could shift parts, singing lead on the verses and harmonizing tenor on the chorus. Along with the use of the mandolin, the use of the tenor voice as lead was another key aspect to the genre Monroe was formulating (Rosenberg 43).

Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys Muleskinner Blues
A 1950 recording of "Mule Skinner Blues" by Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, YouTube

Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry in 1939. Although accounts vary as to what songs the band played for the audition, it was agreed that the band played its version of Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues.” This would become one of Monroe’s signature tunes, and he would go on to record it three times in his career. By Monroe’s account, “Mule Skinner Blues” was the first song he ever performed on the Opry and the first song for which he ever received an encore there (Rosenberg 47).

After several personnel changes, two additions were made to the Blue Grass Boys that would solidify the genre that Monroe was beginning to build. In 1945, guitarist and singer Lester Flatt joined the band. Flatt played a similar style as Charlie Monroe, but his “guitar work was smoother, more syncopated than Charlie’s” (Rosenberg 69). Monroe also hired banjo player Earl Scruggs in 1945 to replace David “Stringbean” Akeman. Stringbean was from the minstrel tradition and added comic relief. However, Monroe had to work with the banjo player to alter his style from clawhammer to a two-finger picking style. Scruggs, on the other hand, had developed his own three-finger picking style from his home state of North Carolina. With Scruggs’ technique, the banjo could become a lead instrument rather than a rhythm instrument much in the same way Monroe had transformed the mandolin. Fiddler Chubby Wise and bassist Cedric Rainwater rounded out what was to become Monroe’s best-known incarnation of his Blue Grass Boys.

Scruggs-style banjo roll
Forward roll on G major chord in both standard notation and banjo tablature, accompaniment pattern characteristic of Scruggs style

With this incarnation, Monroe did away with the slapstick comedy that was a part of other string bands and of his previous versions of the Blue Grass Boys. A lot of the banjo players and fiddlers learned their instruments via the minstrel shows, where comedy was interspersed with music. Monroe’s 1945 Blue Grass Boys wore broad-brimmed hats and breeches. Later, the uniform would be changed to Stetson hats and string ties. In many ways, Monroe was creating a physical as well as a sonic uniformity for his group. While Monroe presented a clean, polished-looking band, he also insured that the band’s sound was clean and polished. While earlier string bands such as the Skillet Lickers would play their solos on top of each other, the Blue Grass Boys took their solos one at a time, much like jazz musicians divvy up their solos. And in Flatt and Scruggs, Monroe had virtuosic musicians that could meet his high standards. The sound Monroe had been tinkering to find had finally coalesced: “Each individual band member was given an opportunity to step into the spotlight, while the gospel quartet singing underscored the solidarity of the group, as did their musical interplay on the many songs where each instrument took its turn” (Rosenberg 76). However, by 1948, Flatt and Scruggs had left the band within days of each, taking Cedric Rainwater and Chubby Wise with them to form a new band.

Publicly, both Flatt and Scruggs denied that the two had any plans to form a new group when they left. Scruggs maintained that the grueling touring schedule was too much for him—consecutive appearances could be several hundred miles apart and could be scheduled two at a time in one afternoon. He hoped to stay home and tend to his aging mother. However, Monroe was known to be a demanding band leader, and his Blue Grass Boys became “a virtual ‘school of bluegrass’” (New World Encyclopedia). A varying account of the split came from Jake Lambert, Flatt’s biographer. Lambert maintained that, although the bandmembers were paid 60 dollars a week, they were required to do much more work than Monroe. Flatt did all the emcee work on the shows, while Scruggs was in charge of handling the group’s finances. After spending enough time carrying around thousands of dollars in cash, it was not hard for Scruggs to see that they were making much less than Monroe and doing much more of the work (Rosenberg 79).

Flatt and Scruggs Foggy Mountain Breakdown
A 1949 Flatt and Scruggs recording of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," YouTube

Flatt and Scruggs formed the Foggy Mountain Boys. The group included Flatt on guitar and lead vocals, Scruggs on banjo, Rainwater on bass, and Wise on fiddle. Flatt and Scruggs added one more element to their band: a dobro guitarist. The Dobro guitar was brought to the American public by in the 1920s by the Dopera brothers, Czechoslavakian immigrations who started their own guitar manufacturing company. The Dobro features a raised bridge and a resonator that amplifies the “slides and whines produced by fretting the metal strings with a steel bar … through mail-order sales and swapping, the instrument made its way along the Appalachian chain” (Price 24). The Dobro is played with the instrument across the musician’s lap and is tuned to an open chord. It has become one of the standard instruments used in bluegrass, along with the fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, and bass.

Dobro guitar
A man playing a Dobro guitar.

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