100 Greatest Men: #13. Bill Monroe

Bill Monroe100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

Few artists can claim creative ownership over an entire genre of music.   Bill Monroe is one of those few artists, as the Father of Bluegrass led the way for a vibrant subgenre of country music that is still thriving today.

Monroe grew up in a musical family, honing his mandolin skills from a young age.  When his parents died before he was a teenager, he went to live with his Uncle Pen, who would eventually become the namesake of one of Monroe’s classic bluegrass tunes.  After he came of age, he followed his older brothers to Indiana, where he played in a band with his siblings on nights and weekends.  When one brother departed, Monroe continued performing with the other as the Monroe Brothers.

As the Monroe Brothers became more popular in the midwest, RCA signed them to a recording contract, with their first releases coming in 1936.   Two years later, the brothers split, forming their own bands.   Monroe changed backing players until he found the right combination, which he called the Blue Grass Boys.   When Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys performed on the Opry in 1939, their first performance is widely considered to be the formal debut of bluegrass music to a wide audience.

The band rapidly grew in popularity throughout the forties, with their new sound fusing close knit, high pitched harmonies with intricate instrumentation.  Future bluegrass legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs played as Blue Grass Boys for a time, before forming their own successful band in 1948.   Monroe recorded for Decca for a period in the fifties, experimenting with electric instruments before returning to his all-acoustic sound.   After a serious car accident, he was sidelined in 1953, but while recovering, rising star Elvis Presley released a wildly popular cover of “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”

Monroe remained a popular recording artist and live performer throughout the sixties, even as newer acts continued to replicate his style.  This imitation frustrated him at times, but was evidence that his individual sound was blossoming into its very own genre.  As the Folk Revival gained steam, Monroe became popular with a new generation of listeners, as bluegrass itself evolved into an internationally popular form of country music.   By 1970, Monroe had joined the ranks of the Country Music Hall of Fame, but his career as far from over.  He continued to tour and record until the nineties, when he passed away in 1996.

Essential Singles:

  • Mule Skinner Blues, 1940
  • I Wonder if You Feel the Way I Do, 1941
  • Honky Tonk Swing, 1942
  • Kentucky Waltz, 1946
  • Blue Moon of Kentucky, 1947
  • Uncle Pen, 1950
  • In the Pines, 1952

Essential Albums:

  • Knee Deep in Blue Grass, 1958
  • I Saw the Light, 1959
  • Bluegrass Ramble, 1962
  • Bluegrass Special, 1963
  • Bluegrass Instrumentals, 1965
  • The High Lonesome Sound of Bill Monroe, 1966
  • Bean Blossom, 1973
  • Live at the Opry, 1984

Next: #12. Eddy Arnold

Previous: #14. Ray Price

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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