IT WAS 1939 WHEN 27-YEAR-OLD BILL Monroe formed a band called the Blue Grass Boys. Their roots were in folk and the country string tradition, but Monroe, who played mandolin, was eager to develop a new style of music. His goal, he later told PEOPLE, was to “give the people a new timin’ to the music that they wasn’t acquainted with.”
His timin’, as it turned out, was just about perfect. In the postwar years, bluegrass (named for his band) became a recognized American folk-art form, a vibrant blend of Appalachian mountain melodies, blues, gospel and jazz. And for more than four decades, Monroe reigned as its stern patriarch. “There was no life, no excitement to country music before Bill,” says longtime friend and country star Ricky Skaggs. “He was aggressive and hard. Those were the seeds he sowed.”
Last week the music that came to be known for the “high lonesome” sound of Monroe’s keening tenor sadly skipped a beat when he died in Springfield, Tenn.—four days short of his 85th birthday—from complications of a stroke. From humble beginnings—he was raised on a farm in Rosine, Ky., the youngest of eight children—Monroe, a sixth-grade dropout, took up the mandolin and ultimately sold 40 million records. Those who fell under his spell included everyone from Elvis Presley (who turned Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” into his first regional hit) to Bob Dylan.
A famously cantankerous man when it came to those who played in his band, Monroe demanded that they share his dedication to, even obsession with, the music. In later years he fiercely guarded his reputation as the father of bluegrass, reacting angrily if anyone dared suggest that paternity didn’t belong to him alone. He neither drank nor smoked, always wore a coat and tie onstage and performed regularly until last March, when he made what was to be his final appearance after 57 years at the Grand Ole Opry.
If it sometimes seemed that Monroe hadn’t the slightest interest in anything except bluegrass, he had no objection. Says banjo great Earl Scruggs, one of the best known Blue Grass Boys: “He put his whole life in the music.” For some, that might have been too steep a price. For the proud Monroe, it was the bargain of immortality.