Bill Monroe was born on Sept. 13, 1911, in Rosine, Ky. Credited as “The Father of Bluegrass,” the music he created evolved from the folk and country music he heard growing up in a musical family as the youngest of eight children. As a child, he also backed up his uncle Pendleton Vandiver (“Uncle Pen”) at local dances.
Orphaned by age 16, Monroe eventually moved to Chicago and formed a group with brothers Birch and Charlie, with Bill on mandolin. While in Chicago, he worked in an oil refinery and as a square dancer on Chicago’s WLS National Barn Dance. Birch soon dropped out, but Bill and Charlie continued on as the Monroe Brothers, finding their most enthusiastic audiences at Charlotte, N.C.’s radio station WBT. They soon recorded several sides for RCA’s Bluebird label, including “John Henry,” “Nine Pound Hammer” and “What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul.”
In 1938, the highly successful duo split up, and Bill formed his first band, the Kentuckians. A year later Monroe changed the name to the Blue Grass Boys and soon set his sights on Nashville. Monroe was only 28 years old when he joined the Opry cast on Oct. 28, 1939. Introduced by George D. Hay, the Opry’s founder, Monroe performed a the Jimmie Rodgers hit “Muleskinner Blues” and got three encores that first night at the War Memorial Auditorium. He quickly became an Opry favorite.
In the 1940s, Monroe began adding lyrics to his melodies and wrote such classic hits as “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Uncle Pen.” He hired banjo picker Earl Scruggs, singer-guitarist Lester Flatt and fiddler Chubby Wise on fiddle to create what is widely recognized as the most important bluegrass band ever. In 1948, Flatt & Scruggs left the band to form the Foggy Mountain Boys. (Wise also left the band that year.)
By the 1950s, Flatt & Scruggs emerged as a formidable presence, while Monroe continued to play the Opry. However, by the 1960s, folk music had become popular, and promoter Ralph Rinzler helped return Monroe to the spotlight. In 1965, Monroe headlined the first multi-day bluegrass festival, and he inaugurated his own annual festival in Bean Blossom, Ind.
Monroe was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970, and he earned the National Endowment for the Arts’ esteemed Heritage Award. His Southern Flavor LP won the first Grammy award ever given for bluegrass music in 1989, and he earned the Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement award in 1993. In 1995, he was awarded a National Medal of Honor by President Clinton at a ceremony conducted at the White House. Monroe died on Sept. 9, 1996. A year later, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted him as an early influence of rock ‘n’ roll.
A number of prominent bluegrass musicians also spent time as one of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, including Stringbean, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, Sonny Osborne and Del McCoury.
Monroe described his beloved bluegrass as music with “a hard drive to it. It’s Scotch bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin’. It’s Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It’s blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound. It’s plain music that tells a good story. It’s played from my heart to your heart, and it will touch you. Bluegrass is music that matters.”