“I’d like for them to remember me as the father of Bluegrass music, the man that originated this music.” —Bill Monroe
After watching Bill Monroe: Father of Bluegrass Music, it will become clear that almost everyone who came after Bill Monroe—regardless of genre—was influenced by, and owes a debt to, the man with the mandolin and the ever-present hat.
Bill Monroe died in 1996. Informative and educational, intriguing and entertaining, part American history lesson, part biography and part concert film, this documentary, originally released in 1999 and out of print for years, features interviews and performances from his final years, as well as archival footage and recordings, and interviews with everyone from Paul McCartney and Jerry Garcia to Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton, from Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart to The Osborne Brothers and several members of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys from various periods of his more than 60 year career.
John Hartford (who was himself a musical legend for, among other things, the Grammy-winning “Gentle on my Mind” and his contributions to the soundtrack for Oh Brother Where Art Thou.) conducted most of the interviews with Bill Monroe seen in this film while the two sat, strumming and reminiscing on Monroe’s front porch. Their conversations include details of Monroe’s early musical memories, from his Uncle Pen, whom he immortalized in one of his best known songs (called, simply, “Uncle Pen”) to the reason he took up mandolin (his elder brothers had already chosen the other instruments, so he was left with the mandolin). They also speak of his early public life such as the fact that he was a professional flat-foot buckdancer before he was a professional musician (One of the segments highlights Emmylou Harris and Jacky Christian—a flat-footing champion— buckdancing, along with Monroe’s own nimble footwork.).
These intimate interviews are intercut with footage of Monroe strumming fireside or caring for his animals on his farm outside Nashville, Tennessee. Bill Monroe tells his story in linear fashion and sharp detail, relating events of 1939 as clearly as 1989. He recalls his first group with his brother Charlie, and, after they parted ways, his formation of the inaugural line-up of the Blue Grass Boys (including Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise and Howard Watts) and his long-standing association with The Grand Ole Opry (further interview footage about the Opry is included in the DVD bonus features).
As Monroe and Hartford get into the rise and dominance of the Blue Grass Boys, the segments with other interviewees begin to include anecdotes from the Boys themselves, most notably, Chubby Wise (fiddle and guitar during the 1940s), Bobby Hicks (fiddle, banjo, bass and mandolin in the mid-to-late 1950s) Sonny Osborne (banjo, 1952-1953) and Del McCoury (vocals, guitar and banjo in the 1960s). It’s also at this point that filmmaker Steve Gebhardt really steps up the footage of performances (likely because there’s more available). Classic songs, like “Blue Moon of Kentucky” from both Monroe himself, and Paul McCartney; “Muleskinner Blues,” “Kentucky Waltz” with Monroe dueting with Emmylou Harris.
Very few people, other than Bill Monroe (if any) are singularly responsible for an entire genre of music. Who would have thought that a combination of traditional Irish and Scottish music filtered through the Appalachians and the Blues of the deep south would even work, let alone become one of the most beloved, popular, lasting and distinctive musical styles in the world? His career is the history of bluegrass music. He is bluegrass.
Bill Monroe: Father of Bluegrass Music is a magnificent representation of just exactly how important Bill Monroe truly is to multiple generations of musicians (as well as non-musicians!). Monroe put it this way, “Bluegrass music is like going to school. When you learn Bluegrass, you can play a lot of music.”