Father of bluegrass music dies Bill Monroe created plaintive sound that delighted generations

Bill Monroe, who laid the foundation of country music as the universally recognized father of bluegrass, died yesterday at Northcrest Home and Hospice Center in Springfield, Tenn. He was 84.

He had suffered a stroke earlier this year, said his booking agent, Tony Conway.


Monroe, who played mandolin and sang in a high, plaintive tenor voice, created one of the most durable idioms in American music.

Bluegrass, named after his band, the Blue Grass Boys, was a fusion of American music: gospel harmonies and Celtic fiddling, blues and folk songs, Tin Pan Alley pop and jazz-tinged improvisations. The Blue Grass Boys sang, in keening high harmony, about backwoods memories and stoic faith; they played brilliantly filigreed tunes as if they were jamming on a back porch, trading melodies among fiddle, banjo and Monroe's steely mandolin. By bringing together rural nostalgia and modern virtuosity, Monroe evoked an American Eden, pristine yet cosmopolitan.


He perfected his music in the late 1940s and stubbornly maintained it, and he lived to see his revolutionary fusion become the bedrock of a tradition that survives among enthusiasts around the world. He was also an indefatigable traveling musician, and a taskmaster who challenged his sidemen with difficult keys and tempos.

Every musician now playing bluegrass has drawn on Monroe's repertory, his vocal style and his ideas of how a string band should work together. And his influence echoes down not just through country music, but also from Elvis Presley (who recorded Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" on his first single disk) to bluegrass-rooted rock bands like the Grateful Dead and the Eagles.

"I never wrote a tune in my life," Monroe once said. "All that music's in the air around you all the time. I was just the first one to reach up and pull it out."

William Smith Monroe grew up on a farm in Rosine, Ky., 30 miles north of Bowling Green. He was the youngest of eight children, and shy because one eye was crossed. Both his mother and an uncle, Pendleton Vandiver (later memorialized in Monroe's tune "Uncle Pen"), were fiddlers, and the young Bill Monroe sometimes accompanied his uncle on guitar. But his older brothers monopolized the family's fiddle and guitar, leaving the 9-year-old Bill to play mandolin.

His mother died when he was 10, and his father six years later. "It was a hard life, to come up with no money," he said. "You'd sing a lot of sad songs."

Monroe followed his brothers to the Chicago suburb of Whiting, Ind., and worked through the Depression at an oil refinery. He began performing with two of his brothers, and in 1934 he started playing music full time in a duo with his brother Charlie on guitar. The Monroe Brothers made their first recordings in 1936, but they split up after two years.

In 1939, Monroe put together a band called the Blue Grass Boys and soon joined the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts. They performed everything from hymns to fiddle tunes to comedy, and toured thousands of miles between Saturday-night broadcasts. He once described his audience as "people who get up in the morning and make a lot of biscuits."

Sidemen came and went during World War II. The group took the lineup of the classic bluegrass quintet -- mandolin, fiddle, guitar, bass and banjo -- in 1942, although it also briefly used accordion and harmonica. Lester Flatt, a guitarist who had worked with Charlie Monroe, joined the group in 1945, followed by the innovative banjoist Earl Scruggs in 1946. With Chubby Wise on fiddle and Howard Watts on bass, that lineup of the Blue Grass Boys defined bluegrass music.


"Bluegrass is competition," Monroe once said, "with each man trying to play the best he can, be on his toes."

Flatt and Scruggs left in 1948, tired of working for $60 a week. But Monroe continued to recruit extraordinary musicians, among them Don Reno and Bill Keith on banjo; Mac Wiseman, Del McCoury and Peter Rowan on guitar and vocals; and Vassar Clements, Byron Berline, Richard Greene, Buddy Spicher and Kenny Baker on fiddle. During the 1950s and afterward, he sometimes expanded the group with two or three fiddles in harmony.

His traditionalism brought him a new audience among urban folk-music fans in the 1960s, and in 1967 he started the annual bluegrass festival in Bean Blossom, Ind. While bluegrass became harder to find on the radio, pushed aside by more modern country music and by rock 'an' roll, it spread among do-it-yourself musicians, who now support more than 500 annual bluegrass festivals.

Monroe was named to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970. It was the first of many awards, including a National Heritage Fellowship Award in 1982, the first Grammy Award for the Best Bluegrass Recording in 1989 and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 1993.

He was acknowledged as a patriarch by performers such as Ricky Skaggs, who collaborated with him on the Grammy-winning tune "Wheel Hoss."

In 1985, someone broke into his home and smashed the 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin he had been playing for four decades; technicians at Gibson Guitars spent three months reassembling it with microscopes and tweezers.


In 1994, bad investments led Monroe to sell the 288-acre homestead in Goodletsville, Tenn., where he had lived for 40 years; the company that owns the Grand Ole Opry bought it and agreed to let him stay there. That year, MCA Records released a four-CD collection, "The Music of Bill Monroe: From 1936 to 1994," produced by the Country Music Foundation, a tribute to Monroe's virtuosity and perseverance.

"If I'd have changed," Monroe said in Rachel Liebling's documentary "High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music," "the people wouldn't have liked that at all."

He is survived by a son, James, and a grandson.

Pub Date: 9/10/96