REMEMBERING BILL MONROE
SEPTEMBER 10, 1996
The Kentucky born "Father of Bluegrass" music died Monday at the age of 84. Singer and instrumentalist Bill Monroe introduced the world to what are now familiar sounds to many of us, in 1938.
RICKY SKAGGS, Musician: My first memory of Bill Monroe, I was six years old. I saw him at Martha, Kentucky. He came to my hometown, uh, and played a show with the Bluegrass Boys and, uh, my mom and dad took me to see the show, and, uh, I'd been playing around that area for a little bit, so the neighbors kind of knew that I could play and sing, so they--they started aggravating Mr. Monroe saying let little Ricky Skaggs get up and sing, and, uh, finally after about twenty or thirty minutes of that, I think he was tired.
He had enough of it, and he said, okay, well, where's he at, you know, and, uh, so I walked up there, and he picked me up on stage, and asked me what I played, and I told him I played the mandolin and sang. So he took his mandolin off and rolled the strap around, you know, the curl on his mandolin and gave it to me, you know, and I played a song, sang it, and got a thunderous applause, you know, because here's a hometown kid, you know, with a Grand Ole Opry star, a legend, and so he sets me back off the stage and does his famous hit, "Mule Skinner Blues," tries to show me up. So that was my first memories of Bill Monroe.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He had a big influence on you, didn't he?
MR. SKAGGS: Well, he certainly planted some deep seeds that night because he could have rejected me, he could have said, uh, you know, you little, you little kid, you'll never amount to anything, and you know, you'll never be as good as me. I mean, he could have said anything like that, but, but he took the time to shake my hand and took the time to, uh, I guess almost affirm me in front of all those people there, you know, uh, it was just--it was a great thing and it really means a lot, I think, for a master like that to affirm some young artist because you never know when that artist might grow up and be, you know, a successful artist someday, and thank goodness I stayed with the music all these years, and I've always loved bluegrass.
I mean, that's the foundations of all the music that I play is bluegrass. And I'm so grateful that I got a chance to work the first probably 18 years, 19 years of my life playing bluegrass music before I went to work with Emmy Lou Harris playing, you know, some country music.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Charles Wolf, what stood out most in your mind, personally, about Bill Monroe?
CHARLES WOLFE, Author: Well, golly, I think the thing that Ricky just talked about is, is one of the characteristics. During the last 15 years of his life Monroe got just about every honor you could imagine. He was in the White House with at least four Presidents. He won all kinds of national awards, and he was recognized as a real living legend. And yet, he routinely would do the sort of thing that Ricky describes. He would be at a show, he would invite somebody to come on stage with him. He would take a few minutes to give somebody a pointer or some lessons. He was a real man of the people. He never became unapproachable. He never became haughty. He was always a person who was willing to really, to really help out.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us how he got started, Mr. Wolfe. The mandolin was somewhat unusual, an unusual instrument for him to play, wasn't it?
MR. WOLFE: Well, the story that he always used to tell was that the mandolin--he got the mandolin because he was the smallest of the, of the family, and that the big brothers had the other instruments, and so he was left with the little mandolin. He was also a very good guitar player as it turns out, but the mandolin was what he made his living with. And as he was growing up, most of the communities around the South had string bands that were basically banjos, fiddles, guitars, maybe an occasional base thrown in.
And this old time southern string band music was the kind of music he was exposed to when he was a boy, and he never did forget he had an Uncle Pen who was a great old time fiddler, and, uh, he heard this music which was basically a folk music, and through his own creative energy and will, he took this music and turned it into something that was powerful and unique. And it was what we now call bluegrass.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ricky Skaggs, have you got anything to add to that about his early life, the stories, and the things he might have told you?
MR. SKAGGS: Well, you know, he had to grow up hard, being the youngest kid, growing up, uh, you know, with a deficiency. I mean, he was cross-eyed when he was born, when he grew up, and--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He had trouble seeing, didn't he?
MR. SKAGGS: Yes. He had a lot of trouble seeing. He was tremendously shy. I mean, when, when people would come to his house when he was a kid, he would run and go to the barn and just hide because he was so shy he didn't want to see people and so I think there was a lot of that that he had to grow up with. You know, his mother I think passed away when he was 10 years old, and his father died long before that. So there was just--it was a hard life to grow up in the Depression times. It was hard work, and I don't think he really got a real good--scholastically I don't think he got a great education, so I think there was a disadvantage there, but, you know, I really believe in my heart that that's the very thing that God used in his life with that gift that he gave him to push in and be a communicator through his music. He was a man of few words, you know, but he--he spoke to the heart of America and to the heart of many nations with his music.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Wolfe, tell us about that music. What is bluegrass music? You mentioned a few of the roots but tell us some more of the roots of bluegrass music.
MR. WOLFE: Well, uh, one--a famous folklorist once described bluegrass music as folk music in overdrive, and to people who, who are not too familiar with folk music, that's probably a pretty good definition. Uh, bluegrass music is basically a string band music. It was built around the fiddle. It's also built around a particular style of singing which is really what's turned out to be probably the most important legacy in modern country music.
Bill Monroe would sing tenor when he was a little boy with, with his brother, Charlie, and he learned how to sing a real high tenor type of music that was very popular in the Kentucky hills, and this harmony singing that he did, that he crafted over a long period of time, eventually became the thing that probably most people associate bluegrass music with. And the other thing that I think is important to know is that bluegrass music for somebody who's just generally interested in music, the first thing they'll notice is nothing's plugged in. It's an acoustic music. There's nothing between the performer and the audience. It's one-to-one, pure acoustic music. And this is something that Bill Monroe felt very strongly about as well.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ricky Skaggs, it's got some blues in it too, doesn't he? He talks about a black musician that influenced him a lot.
MR. SKAGGS: Yes. Arnold Shultz and his Uncle Pen Vandever, you know, they listened to Mississippi Delta Blues, you know, when he was growing up, and I think like Charles said, a lot of the string music and the fiddle tune music but it was just, it was a mixture of all the things that he really loved and the popular music, I guess, of that time, and I get to thinking too when I hear his music and I go back and I listen to the music from the 30's, you know, the late 30's or early 40's, he hadn't really honed in and, and completely built that--the house of bluegrass yet.
I think, uh, he was still searching because when he had Clyde Mooney play guitar with him, Clyde didn't use a kapo, so he was forced to play a chopped bar kind of chord, you know, plunk, plunk, dunk, dunk, almost like a--almost like a jazz guitarist would play, and I think that forced the sound to be a little more staccato sounding and it almost--it was like a precursor, I think, to, uh, to rockabilly music because I listen to people like, you know, Buddy Holly's music and, you know, “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley. It sounds so much like the early sounds that Bill Monroe was doing with songs like “Well, the Road is Rocky, but it Won't Be Rocky Long,” you know, and, and I think it took Earl Skruggs, uh, and what he brought to Bill Monroe's band.
I think when Bill heard Earl Skruggs play the banjo, I think he said, that's the missing link, that's the ingredient that I've been looking for, because, in retrospect, you look and hear his music and you realize all that he was doing up to that point when he heard Earl Skruggs, his music never changed from that moment on. He stayed true to the course. I think he set his face like Flint and went straight ahead, because for the next, well, I guess for the next 50 years and here we're celebrating this week, umm, the 50th anniversary really of Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt and Earl Skruggs going in with the band that they had as the “Bluegrass Boys,” and recording the first, uh, bluegrass hits as we know them today.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you--
MR. SKAGGS: So he never moved, and never changed from that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you both very much.
MR. SKAGGS: Thank you.
MR. WOLFE: Thank you.