BILL MONROE:
PCCís Vintage Interview with the Father of Bluegrass


By Paul Freeman [1993 Interview]

There are many great musical artists. But how many actually invented a genre? Thatís exactly what Bill Monroe did. Heís known as the Father of Bluegrass. For nearly 69 years, he created vibrant music as a singer, instrumentalist, songwriter and bandleader.

Among his classic tunes Monroe penned are ďUncle Pen,Ē ďI Hear a Sweet Voice CallingĒ and ďBlue Moon of Kentucky.Ē

Monroeís group, The Blue Grass Boys, launched many notable careers, including those of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements, Del McCoury, Carter Stanley, Byron Berline and Stringbean. Monroe also played regularly with guitar great Doc Watson.

Monroe kept performing until he was felled by a stroke in April of 1996. He passed five months later, at age 84. But his work continues to influence countless musicians.

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
Itís a privilege to talk with you. Bluegrass music seems as fresh today as it must have in the 30s. Why do you think it is so timeless?

BILL MONROE:
Yes, itís held on awful good. Thereís more people playing it now. And itís all over the world.

PCC:
How would you say it has grown and changed over the last 50 years?

MONROE:
Well, more people are kind of promoting it and helping it. A lot of record companies are putting out records of different artists. And as a result, everything is helped.

PCC:
Are you surprised to see how widely and how well it has been accepted?

MONROE:
Well, Iím just proud of it. Theyíve done so much good to help bluegrass music.

PCC:
Youíve accomplished so much. What are the things youíve been most proud of, over the course of your career?

MONROE:
Iím glad that I originated the music, bluegrass music, and in the way that I wanted it put together. Itís really wonderful to be on the Grand Ole Opry, broadcast every Friday and Saturday night, at least every Saturday, from way on back. And I started there in 1939. Iíve been there for 54 years. This coming October will be 55.

And Paul, hereís something that Iíd like to tell you ó 54 years, and I was late only three times in 54 years.

PCC:
Thatís dependable. And the Opry itself is so dependable for the listeners.

MONROE:
Yes, sir.

PCC:
So many changes in the world, nice to know thereís something thatís always there.

MONROE:
Thatís right.

PCC:
What about the changes in bluegrass? Now you have bands that are mixing it with rock or jazz. What do you think about that?

MONROE:
Well, theyíve got some of that kind of music going in their mind, they want to play some of that rock and stuff like thatÖ I just donít understand a lot of it.

PCC:
But does it bother you, when they take the music that you invented and move it in different directions?

MONROE:
Well, I just try not to listen anymore to it.

PCC:
What about back when Elvis recorded ďBlue Moon of Kentucky,Ē was that something you could accept right away? Or was that hard to take, too?

MONROE:
Well, that was all right. He come to Nashville and come around where I was at and made himself acquainted with me and told me that he was sorry, that he recorded ďBlue Moon of Kentucky.Ē And I told him, I said, ĎWell, ĎBlue Moon of Kentucky,í if it done you some good, if it was a good number for you, Iím for you 100 percent to go right on and sing ĎBlue Moon of Kentucky.íĒ The whole world like to hear him sing ĎBlue Moon of Kentucky.

PCC:
Even though Elvis was creating a new kind of music, he always had great respect for the music that came before.

MONROE:
Yes, sir. He did.

PCC:
Youíve influenced so many people. What music influenced you in the beginning?

MONROE:
Well, I just wanted a music of my own. I heard so many people and I didnít want to copy somebody or follow them and their style of music. I wanted something new. So I just worked at it hard. And Iím glad that I come up with this music. And itís got good sounds, got good timing to it, a hard drive. Itís also got a lot of blues in it. First itís got that old-time Scotch feeling, the way they used to play the fiddle years ago. And then of course, the Methodist, Baptist and Holiness singing is in it. And the old Southern Blues. Itís just got a wonderful sound. It touches you, when you hear bluegrass music.

PCC:
And it seems like it gives the musicians a lot of room to be creative.

MONROE:
It does. It sure does.

PCC:
And does that make it exciting for you? The fact that you can always do something new within a song?

MONROE:
Well, the musicians work hard on it. You take a fiddle player or a banjo player or a mandolin player ó thereís always somebody up there ahead of them. And so now, when they play it, they want to get down and get it up just right, to where they can be in a class with them.

PCC:
How old were you when you began playing the mandolin?

MONROE:
I was up there in Kentucky, at our home, on our farm, about a mile-and-a-half outside of Rosine, Kentucky. I was around six or eight years old. I guess I was eight years old, trying to start on the mandolin.

PCC:
And is it true that it was the mandolin, because thatís what was needed in the family band, the one instrument that was left?

MONROE:
Yes, sir. And that helped out bluegrass a lot, to have that mandolin in there. If youíre not playing the melody of something, you can still keep the time going on the mandolin to help out.

PCC:
As soon as you started playing the mandolin, do you feel that this was the instrument for you. Or would you have been just has happy with guitar?

MONROE:
Well, I think it was good for me, the mandolin. So I was proud of it. Iíve played a Gibson mandolin for a long, long time. I found a mandolin down in Tampa, Florida, in a barber shop down there. And I bought it. And Iíve kept it ever since. Itís been a wonderful mandolin, made in 1923. Itís a Lloyd Loar.

PCC:
What were the most difficult periods for you, over the course of the career?

MONROE:
Iíve taken care of anything like that. I like to work and I like to do things right. And everything has always just worked in there good.

PCC:
Were you surprised in the 60s, when there was another resurgence of interest, thanks to the folk movement? People were rediscovering bluegrass.

MONROE:
Well, I guess a lot of that come around all right.

PCC:
The songwriting, was that something that came easily and naturally to you? Or did you have to work hard at that?

MONROE:
Iíve wrote a lot of songs. And I started back when I hadnít ever wrote any songs. And so I just kind of learned, like going to school, you know, I just learned how to write. But I really wrote a lot of instrumental numbers. And Iím really proud of that.

Paul, Iím not bragginí on this, but I got to where I could write an instrumental number in a half a minute or a minute. And Iím really proud of that.

PCC:
Is that just from experience? Does it come from another place?

MONROE:
Well, it just comes from like hearing the music in your heart and everything and how you want it to sound. And it just all works in there together good.

PCC:
Youíre often referred to as a legend ó how does that make you feel?

MONROE:
Thatís mighty nice. Thatís really a nice title to have ó legend of bluegrass music.

PCC:
Any regrets, looking back on the career? Anything you might have done differently?

MONROE:
No, sir. No, I think I did it pretty near the way I wanted to do it.

PCC:
How do you view the future of bluegrass music?

MONROE:
I think itís here to stay.

PCC:
Do you think it will change much in the future?

MONROE:
Not too much. Itís staying awful close right now. You just play the melody right, you know, a good instrumental number or a gospel song or blues or some good duet, you just hang right in there and take care ó and they mean a lotÖ Paul, where are you calling from?

PCC:
California.

MONROE:
California, boy oh, boy. Iíd sure like to come out to California. Been a long time since Iíve been there.

PCC:
Well, youíve got a lot of fans out here who would certainly like to see again.

MONROE:
Well, you tell them I said hello and wish them all the best.