William Smith Monroe (September 13, 1911 -- September 9, 1996) was an American musician who helped develop the style of music known as bluegrass, which takes its name from his band, the "Blue Grass Boys," named for Monroe's home state of Kentucky. Monroe's performing career spanned 60 years as a singer, instrumentalist, composer and bandleader. He is often referred to as The Father of Bluegrass.
Monroe was born on his family's farm near Rosine, Kentucky, the youngest of eight children of James Buchanan "Buck" Monroe and Malissa Vandiver Monroe. Malissa and her brother, Pendleton "Pen" Vandiver, were both musically inclined, and Monroe and his siblings grew up playing and singing music in the home. Because his older brothers Birch and Charlie had already laid claim to the fiddle and guitar, respectively, young Bill was left with the smaller and less desirable mandolin during family picking sessions. Monroe later recalled that his brothers insisted that he remove four of the eight strings from the instrument so that he would not play too loudly.
Monroe's mother died when he was ten years old, followed by his father six years later. Because his siblings had moved away from Rosine, Monroe lived for about two years with his uncle Pen Vandiver, often accompanying him when Vandiver played the fiddle at local dances. This experience later inspired one of Monroe's most famous compositions, "Uncle Pen," recorded in 1950; on a 1972 album, Bill Monroe's Uncle Pen, Monroe recorded a number of traditional fiddle tunes often performed by Vandiver. Uncle Pen Vandiver has been credited with giving Monroe "a repertoire of tunes that sank into Bill's aurally trained memory and a sense of rhythm that seeped into his bones. Another influence in Monroe's musical life was a black musician named Arnold Shultz who introduced Monroe to the blues.
In 1929, Monroe moved to Indiana to work at an oil refinery with his brothers Birch and Charlie. Together with a friend Larry Moore, they formed a musical group, the Monroe Brothers, to play at local dances and house parties. Birch Monroe and Larry Moore soon left the group, and Bill and Charlie carried on as a duo, eventually winning spots performing live on radio stations— first in Indiana and then, sponsored by Texas Crystals, on several radio broadcasts in Iowa, Nebraska, South Carolina and North Carolina 1934 to 1936. RCA Victor signed the Monroe Brothers to a recording contract in 1936. They scored an immediate hit single with the gospel song "What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul?" and ultimately recorded 60 tracks for Victor's Bluebird label between 1936 and 1938.
After the Monroe Brothers disbanded in 1938, Bill Monroe formed The Kentuckians in Little Rock, Arkansas, but the group only lasted for three months. Monroe then left Little Rock for Atlanta, Georgia, to form the first edition of the Blue Grass Boys with singer/guitarist Cleo Davis, fiddler Art Wooten, and bassist Amos Garren. In October 1939, he successfully auditioned for a regular spot on the Grand Ole Opry, impressing Opry founder George D. Hay with his energetic performance of Jimmie Rodgers's "Mule Skinner Blues". Monroe recorded that song, along with seven others, at his first solo recording session for RCA Victor in 1940; by this time, the Blue Grass Boys consisted of singer/guitarist Clyde Moody, fiddler Tommy Magness, and bassist Bill Wesbrooks.
While the fast tempos and instrumental virtuosity characteristic of bluegrass music are apparent even on these early tracks, Monroe was still experimenting with the sound of his group. He seldom sang lead vocals on his Victor recordings, often preferring to contribute high tenor harmonies as he had in the Monroe Brothers. A 1945 session for Columbia Records featured an accordion, soon dropped from the band. Most importantly, while Monroe added banjo player David "'Stringbean" Akeman to the Blue Grass Boys in 1942, Akeman played the instrument in a relatively primitive style and was rarely featured in instrumental solos. Monroe's pre-1946 recordings represent a transitional style between the string-band tradition from which he came and the musical innovation to follow.