When we last left Bill Monroe, his career was nearing rock bottom. While former sidemen Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were now achieving considerable success peddling Martha White Flour products on television and radio as their own bluegrass act the Foggy Mountain Boys, his own performing opportunities were drying up and a number of musicians left his Blue Grass Boys. In addition, Monroe genuinely believed that Flatt, Scruggs, and other up-and-coming bluegrass acts were stealing his style of music, further raising his ire. But things were about to turn around for the Father of Bluegrass, thanks to a little help from folklorist Ralph Rinzler.
Following the wild popularity of Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys, Peter Welding, a writer for the folk music magazine Sing Out!, wrote an article in 1962 proclaiming that banjoist and former Blue Grass Boy Earl Scruggs was “the undisputed master of bluegrass.” [“Earl Scruggs and the Sound of Bluegrass”, 12 (1962)]
Rinzler was incensed at Welding’s neglect to mention Bill Monroe’s role in creating bluegrass music and asked the editor for equal space to refute Welding’s claim; the editor agreed, though he told Rinzler that the stand-offish Monroe would never give him an interview. But Rinzler snared the interview with Monroe, and subsequently wrote “Bill Monroe: The Daddy of Bluegrass Music”” for the February-March, 1963 issue of Sing Out!. The piece effusively praised Monroe’s music while also attributing the creation of bluegrass music solely to Monroe:
At this point it is an easy task to evaluate the contribution of Bill Monroe. It was a combination of musical traditions, both the Anglo-Scots and the Negro, meeting as they did in that area of Kentucky, which enabled Monroe to blend these two powerful strains in his own instrumental and vocal style. In his choice of instrumental treatment and repertoire, it was Monroe who set the trend to play traditional songs on traditional instruments, and this he did at a time when the trend in commercial country music among performers of his generation was directly opposed to him.
To this day, it is widely believed that Ralph Rinzler coined the phrase “The Father of Bluegrass” in his Bill Monroe article for Sing Out!. Monroe’s biographer, Richard D. Smith states that Monroe had been termed the Father of Bluegrass in Linnell Gentry’s A History and Encyclopedia of Country, Western, and Gospel Music published two year’s prior in 1961. However, Smith writes that Rinzler “brilliantly exploited” the idea of Bill Monroe as the Father of Bluegrass in that:
Forevermore, Monroe’s life and persona would hand on the powerful and catchy phrase ‘Father of Bluegrass.’ It honored his achievement as progenitor of this musical genre. It depicted him as a powerful elder figure with hints of cultural divinity. And it was a major improvement over his image as a distant stranger. Rinzler’s thoughtful questions about Bill’s childhood and influences had implications far beyond the Sing Out! piece…Monroe had never really thought of his roots as being historically significant. Now he began to incorporate statements about Pen Vandiver and Arnold Shultz into his stage shows. The answers given the probing Rinzler provided rich material for the stories that Bill Monroe would tell audiences and journalists for the rest of his life.
The Sing Out! article had further positive repercussions than even Rinzler could have imagined. After reading it, the normally defensive and standoffish Monroe became open with his life, impressed by Rinzler’s honest nature as well as his respect for and knowledge of bluegrass music. Soon Rinzler began taping a series of interviews he conducted with Monroe in hopes of one day writing Monroe’s biography. However, he wanted to wait to write this planned biography until after Monroe had died; whether this is out of respect for Bill’s privacy or a desire to compose ‘a warts and all’ look at Monroe—who was known for directing the silent treatment toward those who he felt slighted or offended him in some way —is not entirely clear.
Unfortunately, Rinzler died of AIDS in 1994 (Bill passed away just two years later, in 1996). Although Rinzler never got to write his biography of Monroe’s life and career, the numerous reel to reel tapes of his interviews are one of the very few—if not the only—primary sources that provide such an intimate and detailed view into the life of Monroe, an intensely private man. On these tapes Monroe expounds at length on his personal and familial history, his decades in the music business, and the ways in which he approaches the art of music making.
Rinzler’s knowledge and appreciation (some might say borderline idolization) of Monroe and traditional music enabled him to engage Monroe in a way that other journalists may not have been able to; even answer to questions such as “What is a wheel hoss?” (the title of one of Monroe’s instrumentals) provided a look into Monroe’s personality as well as a brief glimpse into rural Kentucky folklife in the early 20th century. (While Monroe’s definition of a wheel hoss is a bit vague, it appears to be a colloquialism learned from a childhood spent hauling lumber with a team of horses: the “wheel hoss” is the one nearest the cart’s front wheels.) Today, these interviews (currently on compact disc at the Ralph Rinzler Archives at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage) are an absolute treasure for folklorists, historians, musicians, and nerds like me with an afternoon to kill hunched over a CD player.
Following the Sing Out! article, Rinzler became Monroe’s manager, dedicating himself to restoring the musician’s flagging career and booking Monroe for performances wherever possible. In the ‘40s, Monroe’s travelling show included acts such as a gospel quartet, comedians, buck dancers, old-time fiddlers, pop singers, and “girl singers” (at the time women musicians did not tour without a male as the main act), in addition to the primary attraction of Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys. During the height of his career, Monroe even fielded a baseball team that would organize pickup games in each town in order to drum up publicity for that evening’s concert.
But by 1960, this type of extravaganza had long since collapsed and the public’s desire for Monroe’s music was fading fast. Monroe was unable to keep his musicians on salary, and thus could barely keep a band roster together for more than six months at a time. In short, Monroe was becoming something of a has-been, well on his way to being forgotten by all except the most dedicated folklorists and music buffs.
// Notes from the Road
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