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The Birth of Bluegrass Music

The First 75 Years
written By Dan Miller 

Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs,
Birch Monroe, Lester Flatt

Peter Rowan has said, “When you are standing next to the fire that is Bill Monroe, you will ignite.”1  From the first time Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys stepped on the Grand Ole Opry stage on October 28th, 1939, and played Jimmie Rodgers’ “Muleskinner Blues” so fast that it astounded the Opry regulars who were standing in the wings and caused the crowd to demand an encore (an Opry first), everyone knew that they were witnessing something new, unique, and exciting.  The fire had definitely been lit.

From that first Opry performance in 1939 through the end of 1945, Monroe’s fire continued to burn strong and steady.  But then, in December 1945, a young 21-year-old banjo picker from North Carolina named Earl Scruggs joined the group and doused that fire with gasoline.  In the PBS video documentary Big Family: The Story of Bluegrass Music, Del McCoury said, “The pieces were all there before Earl came.  He was the last piece and that was the one they needed for that music because he could play tempos up there with that mandolin…that fast stuff…hard driving.  That is what put the spark in it.”

The first time that Earl Scruggs stepped on the Opry stage with the band, Monroe had selected the up-tempo song “White House Blues” to highlight his new banjo picker.  Utilizing his three-finger right hand roll, Earl let loose a rapid stream of notes that rang out with power, punch, and drive.  This was a sound the likes of which had never been heard coming out of a banjo on that stage, and the Opry crowd went wild.  The band that was on stage that night on the 8th of December 1945 consisted of Bill Monroe on mandolin, Lester Flatt on guitar, Earl Scruggs on the banjo, Howdy Forrester on the fiddle, and Joe Forrester on the bass.

     By March of 1946 Howdy and Joe Forrester had left the band and the band that has been called the “classic” or “original” Blue Grass Boys [Monroe on mandolin, Chubby Wise on fiddle, Lester Flatt on guitar, Cedric Rainwater (Howard Watts) on bass, and Earl Scruggs playing his “fancy” banjo], were in full stride and all of the bluegrass pistons were firing.  Adding Scruggs style banjo to the band’s sound was the final piece of a puzzle that Monroe had been working to put together since he had first stepped on the Opry stage with his Blue Grass Boys in 1939.  

     Driven by Monroe’s creativity and guidance, many of the elements that would eventually define bluegrass music were put in place early on in Monroe’s musical life and others were added along the way.  Monroe has said, “To start with, I wanted to have a music different from anybody else; I wanted to originate something. I wanted to put all of the ideas that I could come up with, that I could hear of different sounds…and of course I’ve added the old Negro blues to bluegrass. And we have some of the Scotch music in it—the bagpipes….and we also have hymn singing—you’ll notice that down through the melodies and through bluegrass.”2  

     Although many historians, fans, and bluegrass musicians, point to the day Earl Scruggs joined the Blue Grass Boys in December of 1945 as the birth of bluegrass, Monroe himself viewed the birth of his bluegrass music as actually dating back to 1939.  In a radio interview conducted in 1966, Monroe, referring to bluegrass music said, “It’s been 27 years now.”3  Which would date back to 1939, not 1945.  In that same interview, Monroe also stated,  “And with the Blue Grass Boys, it’s been kinda like you going to school—you’ve got a good teacher over you, somebody that knows what you should do and what shouldn’t do….so we have had to kinda set a pattern with bluegrass….and of course each year, why,  I have brought out a little something different as we’ve gone along.” So, to Monroe, adding Earl Scruggs banjo to the band was simply bringing out “something different” as part of the evolution of his developing sound.

     When Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys played “Muleskinner Blues” on the Opry stage in 1939, the speed at which they played that number was not the only new element that Monroe brought to the Opry stage.  Other bands in the past had played songs at fast tempos.  What astounded the other Opry members and the audience was the degree of precise execution that the band could display at that tempo.  Additionally, there was Monroe’s high-pitched singing voice and the rhythmic drive of his mandolin.

     From the time he was 13-years-old Monroe had been working on his mandolin style—working hard on both his lead soloing and rhythmic accompaniment.  When interviewed about his mandolin style, Monroe said, “In originating bluegrass music I originated a different style of a mandolin. I wanted to be sure that I played a different style from the other people through the country that played a mandolin. So that’s worked in with bluegrass, too—it’s been a big help to bluegrass.”4  Monroe later added, “We use the mandolin as a kind of a rhythm instrument in the group, and it sets perfect for the mandolin to keep the time the way we’ve got it arranged.”5

     Regarding Monroe’s mandolin style, Blue Grass Boy Richard Greene said, in a 1966 interview, “There are lots of mandolin players in the field and they all keep time but, you see, Bill keeps it in a way—I mean, this is just the offbeat on the mandolin; there are other things that time is composed of—but the offbeat on the mandolin, he does it so exactly right…I haven’t seen anyone on any instrument hit the offbeat as precisely as he does…It’s just so solid and perfect.”6  

    In the same interview Blue Grass Boy Peter Rowan added, “Just chords…and of course the chords on that mandolin come out as a—I don’t know how to describe it except that instead of hearing a single note or hearing the single notes in a chord, the chord seems to come out as a cluster of notes all at once, strong and sharp.”  

In an interview conducted for Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, Rowan explained that when Bill Monroe stepped up to the microphone to take his mandolin solo the rhythmic chop of the mandolin was gone, so he (as the guitar player) had to play much heavier with his off-beat guitar strum in order to fill-in for Monroe’s missing mandolin chop, otherwise a big part of the band’s rhythmic content would suddenly be missing.

To counterbalance his strong, sharp, and precise off-beat mandolin chop, Monroe added a stand-up bass to the band.  After Monroe split with his brother, Charlie, in 1938, the first person he hired when forming his new band was guitar player Cleo Davis, who he hired in August, 1938.  Next, Bill hired fiddler Art Wooten and a comedian Tommy Millard, who played spoons or bones on the instrumental numbers and did the emcee work.   When Millard left the band in July of 1939, Monroe hired bassist Amos Garen.  At that time, a bass was not a common instrument in hillbilly string bands.  However, Monroe felt that having a string bass would help provide a strong rhythmic foundation.   With the bass adding the deep tones on the down beats, his mandolin accentuating the off-beat in the upper tonal register, and the guitar player playing both the down beat and the off-beat in the mid-range, the band had a strong, solid, and supporting rhythm section with a broad tonality.

At first, the only soloists in the band were Monroe on his mandolin and Wooten on his fiddle.  As the story goes, Bill, using his mandolin, showed Wooten how he wanted the fiddle played in his band, especially on the vocal numbers.  I’m sure that what Monroe had in his ear in those early days was the fiddle playing that he heard from his Uncle Pendleton Vandiver and the guitar and fiddle playing of Arnold Shultz.  Regarding these early influences, Monroe said of his Uncle Pen, “He played for a lot of square dances in Kentucky….There wasn’t many musicians around and back in the early days I had to learn to play a guitar; he would let me go along with him to play guitar while he was playing the fiddle….and we’d make from two dollars-and-a-half up to five—never over five dollars a night. So, I really have to give him a lot of credit for my playing and really, I guess, the roots of bluegrass.”7

Remembering Arnold Shultz, Monroe said, “I had got acquainted with this old colored man that played a guitar, and he could play some of the prettiest blues that you ever listened to. He also could play a fiddle and me and him has played for some dances, you know, just the fiddle and guitar. But that’s where the blues come into my life—hearing old Arnold Shultz play ‘em….He was the best blues player around in our part of the country there in Kentucky, and that’s where most of the people that plays a guitar today—that’s all come from old Arnold Shultz: it come on down through Mose Rager, from him into Merle Travis, and from him into Chet Atkins….that’s where all that style of playing come from.”8

These two musicians—along with Monroe’s mother, Malissa—were Monroe’s earliest musical influences.  When Monroe was working to put his music together, he was no doubt drawing on the music he heard as a boy.  It was in the context of these “ancient tones” that he molded the musicians in his band.  His direction to band members was often simply a general reference to either his voice or his mandolin, the two centerpieces of the band’s sound.  In an interview conducted for Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, Peter Rowan said that when Chubby Wise joined the band (his first stint with Monroe started in March of 1943), Monroe simply told Wise, “Play it the way I sing it.”  Monroe wanted the fiddle solo on a song to copy the phrasing of Monroe’s vocal.  Monroe alludes to this style of fiddling in a line from his famous song about his Uncle Pen’s fiddling… “you could hear it talk, you could hear it sing.”

I have interviewed a number of former Blue Grass Boys over the years and many of them have indicated that the direction that Monroe gave to any of his band members regarding what they played was not typically specific.  Monroe rarely told them exactly what to play.  Roland White said that when he joined the band as the guitar player in 1967, he asked Bill about what he expected from him and if there were any of his former guitar players who he should listen to or emulate.  Bill said, “Listen to me sing and listen to me play the mandolin.”9

Peter Rowan, in the 1966 radio interview said that when a band member wasn’t playing what Monroe expected, Monroe wouldn’t say anything, he would just ignore the man, or act disgusted.  On one occasion when Rowan was getting the cold shoulder from his boss, he asked, “What is wrong Bill?  Monroe said, “You are just note, note, notin’ just to be notin’!”10 In the same interview, Rowan also describes the one element that made everything come together in Monroe’s band…the man himself.  Rowan said, “Take a banjo player, a guitar player, a fiddle player and a bass player, and say they’re all competent musicians—and put them with Bill and there’s this driving force through all the other music in the band.”

Being a soloist in Monroe’s band was not an easy job.  He expected of them the same standards as he demanded of himself.  He wanted the soloist to be able to play at a fast tempo, but not be sloppy.  Monroe expected a high level of virtuosity from his soloists.  The fact that Monroe tended to play his tunes in higher than standard keys also required the soloist to put in a bit of extra work and be more creative.  Songs that were typically played in the key of C, were played up in B flat or B in Monroe’s band.  Similarly, songs that were typically played in D, would be up in E.  

Soloists in Monroe’s band were also encouraged to improvise and, in a sense, compete with each other.  If one man took a solo, the expectation was that the next man would step up and take the performance level up a notch.  This added more excitement to the show.  The fact that each soloist was given their opportunity to solo, in the spotlight, was another new addition to the Monroe show.  This presentation was more along the lines of a jazz band than that of a country string band.  In fact, bluegrass has at times been referred to as the “jazz of country music.”  The speed at which the songs were performed, and the spotlighting of individual soloists, moved bluegrass away from a dance-style music to a concert performance style of music. 

The Monroe show was also arranged to have a dynamic appearance.  The band would perform around one microphone and each soloist would step up to the microphone when it came time for them to take their solo.  In an interview conducted for Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, Peter Rowan said that when Monroe was up at the microphone taking his mandolin solo, as that solo came to a close, he was known to have turned his head towards the next soloist and say, “Crowd me now, crowd me!”  He wanted the next soloist to be ready to jump right in and pick up where Monroe left off immediately, without any delay.  There was a choreographed manner in which the musicians would work the microphone so that the show would contain a dynamic physical movement that would complement the energy of the music.

Another visual element of the show that was new in Monroe’s band was their dress.  Back in that era, at the Grand Ole Opry, the performers were usually dressed in some form of rural or Western costumes.  Monroe wanted to be different.  When he hired Cleo Davis to play guitar for him in 1938, the first thing that he did was take Cleo out to get a suit and a Stetson hat.  Monroe wanted his band members to look sharp on stage.  He did not want them to appear to be stereotypical country rubes or western cowboys.

Precision in the instrumental solos was not the only type of precision that Monroe demanded of his band.  The vocal harmonies were also very precise, sophisticated, and tightly arranged. Typically, the three-part vocal harmony included a tenor line just above the lead voice and a baritone line just below the lead voice. The harmony singers in bluegrass were also pushing against the lead singer in intensity and volume. In other types of country music, the harmony singers are in the background and the lead singer is always out front.  In bluegrass all of the singers are very present, once again, almost as if they are competing with each other.  This style of harmony singing brings with it a palpable level of excitement.

Additionally, Monroe included a vocal quartet on the sacred numbers, which would add a bass voice to the vocal trio.  The vocal quartet was accompanied by sparse instrumentation—usually just the guitar.  This vocal quartet was another Monroe innovation that had not yet been seen, from a string band, on the Opry before Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys performed in this manner.  Monroe has said, “So I’ve used duets and trios…and we’ve always carried the Blue Grass Quartet, too—because I do like to do a couple or three hymns in any concert, you know.  I was the first one to ever have a quartet in a string band down south. Could have been some other parts of the country that had them, but in our part, I was the first one.”11

    The band’s sound varied between 1938 and 1945. Monroe tried a variety of instruments in the band, including spoons, bones, jug, harmonica, tenor banjo, and accordion at different times.  In 1942 he added his first banjo player, Stringbean (Dave Akeman).  Stringbean was a comedian and played a frailing style of banjo.  Monroe convinced him to learn a two-finger style, like the style used by Wade Mainer, however, Stringbean was not proficient enough at the style to take solos on high tempo numbers. Stringbean stayed with the band from July of 1942 through September of 1945.

Lester Flatt had joined Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in March of 1945.  When Stringbean left the band to perform in a comedy duo, Flatt was not interested in Monroe hiring another banjo player because he didn’t think any of them could keep up with the fast tempo tunes.  Monroe asked fiddler Jim Shumate if he knew any banjo pickers from his native North Carolina. Shumate brought Earl Scruggs in to meet with Monroe. They met in Shumate’s hotel room and when Monroe heard Scruggs play, he was impressed.  He asked Earl to audition with the whole band.  When Flatt learned that they would be auditioning a new banjo player, he told Monroe to tell the boy to keep his banjo in the case.  But, after hearing Earl play “Dear Old Dixie,” Flatt changed his mind.  He said, “If you can hire him, get him.  No matter what it costs.”12 The rest, as they say, is history.

After Monroe started recording and touring with Scruggs in the band in 1946, Monroe’s sound caught on and other musicians started coming up with their own version of what was to later be defined as “bluegrass music.”  After hearing Earl Scruggs play with Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley said, “…as the music advanced I thought I should advance with it.  It was a better style and it was a better beat and all that.”13   Many people who were playing string band music at the time felt  the same way.

A good number of the musicians who would form the core of the “first generation” bluegrass bands actually spent time in Monroe’s band.  Flatt and Scruggs stayed with Monroe until 1948 and then formed their own band.  Don Reno replaced Earl Scruggs in 1948 and stayed with Monroe until 1949.  He went on to form his famous partnerships with Red Smiley and Bill Harrell.  Carter Stanley played guitar with Monroe from July to October of 1951 and left to team back up with his brother Ralph.  Sonny Osborne played banjo with Monroe in 1952 and 1953 and then teamed up with brother Bobby to launch another of the famous first-generation bands.  Jimmy Martin played guitar and sang with Monroe from December of 1949 through June of 1951 and then again from July of 1952 through 1954.  Like the others, Martin would go on to lead his own band.  The same is true of Mac Wiseman who was with Monroe from April through December of 1949.

[While each of the first-generation bluegrass bands patterned what they did after Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, they each also brought something different to the music.  While a study of these differences is beyond the scope of this article, in one of our podcast interviews this month Alan Munde discusses some of the unique characteristics of the various first generation bands.  You can find the link to all of our weekly podcasts on our website
[www.bluegrassunlimited.com]. 

During the 1950s, into the 1960s, and beyond, the branches of the bluegrass tree continued to grow and those branches were not only made up of professional performing bands, they also included amateur pickers who were serious about learning how to play this music themselves.  In the early 1960s one-day bluegrass festivals started to appear and then in 1965 promoter Carlton Haney put on the first multi-day, multi-band bluegrass festival—which included instrument workshops—in Fincastle, Virginia, and thus started a thriving bluegrass festival scene that spread throughout the country and around the world.

If the world of bluegrass music had remained centered around professional bands playing live on stages, releasing recordings, and having music broadcast on the radio, the genre probably would never be where it is today.  An important part of the history of bluegrass music is the fact that a good majority of the fans are also players.  Bluegrass fans love to play the music.  Getting together at local jam sessions, parking lot sessions, or campground sessions at festivals is a big part of what bluegrass music is all about.  It is the community of bluegrass that helps it to continue to thrive.  We will save the important and relevant discussion about the formation and growth of the bluegrass community for another issue.

There is a lot more that we can say about the history and propagation of bluegrass music, but it is all beyond the scope of this article.  Our purpose here is to celebrate that day in December of 1945 when Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys and thus gave birth to bluegrass music as we have come to know it today in its many forms and branches.  While some may say that bluegrass music was born when Monroe first formed the Blue Grass Boys in 1939, there is no doubt that the addition of Earl Scruggs three-finger roll five-string banjo style, 75 years ago this month, added a new dimension to the music and gave it the identifiable sound that is still prominent in the music today.