13 September 2021

Bill Monroe, 13 Sept. 1911-9 Sept. 1996

Bill Monroe, father of bluegrass music, was born 110 years ago today. Lasr Thursday (9 Sept.) was the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death.

The only safe rule for anyone who wants to know about his life is to read everything there is. While Richard D. Smith's Can't you hear me callin': the life of Bill Monroe, father of bluegrass (2000) comes closest to being a single general-purpose comprehensive biography, Jim Rooney's compact Bossmen: Bill Monroe & Muddy Waters (1971) is still very much worth reading after fifty years.

The music of Bill Monroe (2007) by Neil V. Rosenberg and Charles K. Wolfe is an exemplary bio-discography of all that Monroe recorded during his life, but Rosenberg's earlier Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys: an illustrated discography (1974) is worth finding for the pictures.

Anything written by those who played with Bill Monroe (or were otherwise as close to him as he allowed) should be given priority. Rosenberg both played with Monroe and managed the Brown County Jamboree during the 1960s, as recounted in his Bluegrass generation: a memoir (2018). Two more banjo players and a fiddler have published their own reminiscences - Butch Robins, What I know 'bout what I know (2003), Bob Black, Come hither to go yonder: playing bluegrass with Bill Monroe (2005), and Gene Lowinger, I hear a voice calling: a bluegrass memoir (2009). And Tom Ewing, who played guitar as a Blue Grass Boy for the last ten years of Monroe's career, has meticulously edited The Bill Monroe reader (2000) and written the monumental Bill Monroe: the life and music of the Blue Grass Man (2018), which he carefully describes as 'not necessarily a biography [...] more accurately, a chronicle'. Some of what is in The Bill Monroe reader is also in the Ottawa Valley Bluegrass Music Association's compilation of tributes by people whose lives were touched by Bill Monroe.

Richard Thompson's year-long daily chronicle of milestones in the life of Monroe, compiled for Bluegrass Today in 2010-11, should not be forgotten. What else would BIB readers suggest?

It seems appropriate to mark the present occasion with a recording of 'Bill Monroe for breakfast', written and sung by Tom T. Hall, who died on 20 August.

To come: The University of Illinois Press expects to publish in 2022 Bob Black's Mandolin man: the bluegrass life of Roland White (guitarist for Monroe 1967-9) and Mark Hembree's On the bus with Bill Monroe.

© Richard Hawkins

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