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The Epoch Times
The Epoch Times
3 Jun 2023

NextImg:Bill Monroe and The Blue Grass Boys

The rolling hills of Kentucky are adorned with a soft blue hue each spring thanks to Poa, a type of luscious green grass that blooms bright, delicate flowers atop its blades. These flowers can be found across vast pastures and horse farms throughout the state. When musician Bill Monroe needed to come up with a name for his newly formed band in 1938, he could think of no better way to honor his beloved home state than by naming the group “The Blue Grass Boys,” after the blooming fields he looked forward to seeing every April.

Nicknamed “The Bluegrass State,” Kentucky is generally regarded as “The Birthplace of Bluegrass Music.” However, a historical marker in Nashville, Tennessee also boasts that coveted title, after Monroe’s legendary performance in 1945 when bluegrass music was performed to the masses for the first time. Without Monroe and his “Blue Grass Boys,” or the Poa he loved so much, we may not have ever been given the gift of the acoustic-based, toe-tapping genre.

Bill Monroe Farm is located on Jerusalem Ridge in Kentucky. (Jon Roanhaus/CC BY-SA 4.0)

Born in 1911, Monroe grew up on his family’s rural farm in the small community of Rosine, Kentucky. His family spent most of their time working the land, but they were a musical family as well. After a long day’s work, Monroe could find his mother, Malissa, or his uncle, Pen, sawing on fiddles and singing traditional songs. He also spent plenty of time playing music with his siblings, who relegated him to picking up the mandolin since his brother Charlie already played guitar.

Their family’s farm was nicknamed “Jerusalem Ridge,” and it stood as a spiritual experience of sorts for Monroe. He always credited the “holiness” people found in his music to his mother.

As a young adult, Bill formed the group “The Monroe Brothers” with his brother Charlie. Though they gained a significant local following throughout the 1930s, they eventually parted ways to start their own groups and see their unique visions through.

For Bill Monroe, his unique vision would produce a type of band America had never experienced before.

“Bill Monroe, Take It Easy Ranch, Callaway, Maryland,” 1973, by photographer Henry Horenstein. Annenberg Space for Photography Collection of Exhibition Prints, Library of Congress. (Public Domain)

In 1938, Monroe’s band “The Blue Grass Boys” was born, and they took live music venues by storm. Traveling relentlessly, their never-before-heard band setup made them a truly unique attraction.

While the traditional country setup of the time featured singing cowboys backed by acoustic guitars and string sections, Monroe’s twangy, high-energy band featured his mandolin skills, dancing fiddle work, and three-part harmonies. Monroe added banjo player Earl Scruggs to the group and he proved to be a powerful force that gave the group new life.

Banjo player Earl Scruggs (L) and guitarist Lester Flat in 1949. (Public Domain)

With countless show dates under their belts as one of Nashville’s most in-demand acts, Scruggs only added to their influence. His inventive, intense way of playing gave rise to a whole new style that was both crisp and commanding. His picking preference, which included only three fingers, came to be known as “Scruggs style,” and it gave “The Blue Grass Boys” a significant boost to their stage presence.

Though Monroe and his band first performed at The Grand Ole Opry (Nashville’s preeminent concert venue) in 1939, it was their concert at The Ryman Auditorium that became a significant moment in music history and introduced the masses to what we now call “bluegrass music.”

Stage view from the world-famous Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. (Jeffrey Zeldman/CC BY 2.0)

In 1945, “The Blue Grass Boys” featured their five-piece band (Monroe on mandolin, Lester Flatt on guitar, Howard Watts on bass, Scruggs on banjo, and Chubby Wise on fiddle) at the iconic Ryman Auditorium, one of the most significant and esteemed concert halls in the world. Monroe introduced bluegrass music to a widespread, commercial audience for the first time, and by the end of their set they took a final bow on stage amid a standing ovation.

The “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe statue outside the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. (Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

Considered to be “roots” music, the traditional foundation of bluegrass can be traced back to Ireland, Scotland, and England before America’s colonization. As European settlers began arriving in the Appalachian Mountains, Kentucky, and Tennessee, they brought with them a rich culture full of acoustic-based, stringed music and stories centered around rural farming communities. Eventually, these elements were married to genres like country, gospel, and blues. 

Monroe was the first to officially package the genres all together to form bluegrass music. His hard work and dedication to his craft brought the infant genre to listeners across the country, earning him the much-deserved title, “The Father of Bluegrass Music.”

The bluegrass genre represents more than a musical movement; it represents a bridge connecting traditional European cultures of the 1600s to the burgeoning southeastern farmlands of the early 1900s. The homespun style pays homage to family, hard work, self-reliance, and celebration of life’s simple pleasures.

With hits like the languid “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and the swift and speedy “Orange Blossom Special,” Monroe solidified himself as one of America’s most imaginative and original musicians in contemporary history.

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