THE MUSIC OF Bill Monroe, who died this week at the age of 84, was born in the rolling bluegrass hills of his native Kentucky. By fusing rhythmic and melodic elements of country, gospel, Celtic fiddling, blues and yodeling, he created a unique genre that developed a cult following, particularly among younger white urbanites yearning to relive the simpler times of America's past.
During a career that spanned 62 years, Bill Monroe sold more than 50 million records and mentored scores of musicians who turned bluegrass music into a worldwide phenomenon. Bill Monroe himself could never quite get over it that foreign musicians, who could hardly speak any English, were able to phonetically mimic the lyrics and play bluegrass that had the feel of authenticity about it.
Bill Monroe was the youngest of eight children in a farming family, where everyone played something. He ended up with a mandolin because it happened to be the one instrument no one else was using. Orphaned at 16, he went to live with his uncle, the square dance fiddler Pendleton ("Uncle Pen") Vandiver. Another early influence was Arnold Schultz, a black fiddler and guitarist.
In 1939, three years after making his first recording, Bill Monroe assembled a band called the Blue Grass Boys and soon joined the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts. That was the band that defined bluegrass music. That was the band that in the mid-1940s, featuring Bill Monroe's high-pitched tenor and lightning-fast picking by such legends as Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, recorded classics like "Blue Moon of Kentucky," "Kentucky Waltz" and "Footprints in the Snow."
Over the next half-century, as Monroe sidemen changed and new tunes were introduced, bluegrass established itself as a music form that had a special appeal to many urbanites. Washington, D.C., turned into a major bluegrass center, largely due to WAMU (88.5). The American University FM station played -- and keeps playing -- a heavy diet of Bill Monroe every day. His music, a eulogist noted, "evoked an American Eden, pristine yet cosmopolitan."