Though Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry may still be the mother church, country music is asplinter with schisms—Austin, Memphis, Bakersfield. Even worse, Australian infiltrators and Hollywood types have gotten their manicured mitts into the collection plate. Of course, to the old-timers, it has been all down-mountain since the TVA electrified the first guitar.
But there is one genre of country that is far more popular than ever, yet just as pure: bluegrass. And what has kept it authentic—aside from the natural charms of its breakneck banjo-pickin’, clod-stompin’ drive and hill-rattlin’ yodel—is Bill Monroe. At 63, the gentleman hillbilly is still as musically prolific and lustily alive as when he originated the sound back in the 1930s. It was mandolin maestro Monroe who hired Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs as sidemen for his old Blue Grass Boys (hence the term). And it was that duo which helped popularize the music nationally, writing themes for TV’s The Beverly Hillbillies and the movie Bonnie and Clyde. That in turn paved the back road for bluegrass’s first No. 1 record, Duelin’ Banjoes from the film Deliverance.
Today the bluegrass sound enlivens TV spots for products as mainstream as Dole Pineapple, and Monroe-influenced artists like Maria Muldaur, Linda Ronstadt and Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman have given it a new sex appeal. Bill Monroe and his latest Blue Grass Boys are winding up their best summer ever, driving all night by dilapidated bus to keep up with a proliferating series of festivals.
There are now more than 100 of these pecker-Woodstocks in the U.S., and Monroe personally runs 15 of them in 14 states. His biggest annual hoedown, at Bean Blossom, Ind., pulls as many as 30,000, but the one that means the most to Bill plays to barely 200. It’s the midsummer stopover in his birthplace, Rosine, Ky. (pop. 150). There, he says, “you see the hard-working people and the land my music is all about. Bluegrass tells about growing up, about love, hunting and the beauty of these ridges. People down here understand it because they know the lonesomeness of life.”
The youngest of eight children of a farmer (and a direct descendant of the fifth U.S. President), Monroe was orphaned at 16. By then, though, he had been steeped in mountain music by his square-dancing father and fiddler mother. “I always wanted to play the fiddle,” he recalls, “but brother Birch learned it, and then brother Charlie took up the guitar, so I was left with the mandolin.” At 18 Bill joined his brothers in the oil refineries of East Chicago, working “every day for five years loading oil barrels and playing dances in my spare time.”
When the Depression hit, Bill and Charlie formed a singing duet, the Monroe Brothers, but split up in 1938. Charlie continued wailing ballads, but Bill rejected what even back then had become the slick “Nashville sound” to draw on his musical roots of square dancing, folk singing, hymns and Negro blues. He added his wildly improvisational mandolin riffs to create bluegrass. He also became a fiddlin’ fixture of radio’s Grand Ole Opry.
In the 1950s bluegrass went temporarily to seed with the onrush of rockabilly. (Ironically, the first recording by the main perpetrator, Elvis Presley, was Blue Moon of Kentucky, Monroe’s signature song.) About then Bill was in a car crash that doctors feared for a while would cripple him for life. His marriage to his wife, Carolyn, had also collapsed—though she still works in his Nashville office and he sees her there practically every day. “Some outside folks got to messing in our lives and by the time we got things straightened out,” he explains, “it was too late.” Bill never remarried, but one of his former bassists, Bessie Lee Mauldin, claims she traveled as Bill’s common-law wife in the early 1960s, and last month she sued him for alimony in Nashville.
Otherwise the Monroes are family folks. Bill’s brothers are back in his operation, and his older daughter, Melissa, 38, has recorded bluegrass songs. His son James, 34, has his own touring group, the Midnight Ramblers, and with Dad runs a booking agency in Nashville that has cornered the blue-grass market. The rest of the time Monroe pokes around his 280-acre farm near Nashville, where his idea of a perfect afternoon is to plow a field behind two horses. “I guess if I hadn’t left Rosine and gone up north, I’d probably be just like the other folks who live here now, farming and raising a family,” reflects Bill. “I probably wouldn’t have gone through seven, 10, 15 women.” Or changed the history of down-home music.