Updated: May 10, 2020
It's not too often in the history of American music that a single person creates an entire musical genre, and Bill Monroe is undoubtedly one of those rare individuals. Born in 1911 in Rosine, Kentucky, Monroe was raised in a time and place that hadn't changed all that much since the 19th century. As a kid growing up on Jerusalem ridge, he had no electricity and running water, and much of his life was focused on family and farm work. Like many rural families, music was a way to pass the time, celebrate, and a means to bring communities together for gatherings of celebration, mourning, and worship. Monroe's family were some of the best musicians in the region, and his Uncle Pendleton Vandiver was one of the most sought after fiddlers in that part of Kentucky. Between his immediate family, Uncle Pen, and a local African American blues musician named Arnold Schultz, Bill Monroe soaked up some of the best influences and sounds of gospel, secular string band music, old time fiddle numbers (many traced back to Scotch/Irish tunes from the earliest settlers in Kentucky), and most importantly--the blues.
Forced to play mandolin by his older brothers Birch and Charlie (who kept the guitars and other instruments to themselves--they thought the small eight string mandolin was a "sissy" instrument), Monroe pioneered the use of the mandolin as driving fast paced lead instrument. He learned blues runs and licks from Arnie Schultz, alternate string tunings from Uncle Pen, and then blended those pentatonic scales with fiddle numbers and up-tempo string band numbers to create a unique sound on the mandolin that eventually grew into what became know as "Bluegrass Music."
In the pre-WWII era of early recorded music, Monroe had good success on radio broadcasts, as well as recording with his brother Charlie Monroe as a duo the Monroe Brothers. These early recordings are beautiful encapsulations of what became known as "Brother Style" duets, and contemporaries like the Delmore Brothers, Callahan Brothers, Blue Sky Boys, Stanley Brothers, Lilly Brothers, Louvin Brothers, and Jim & Jessie McReynolds, all became some of the most popular performers in that era of country music.
After forming the Bluegrass Boys in the late 1930's, Monroe and his up-tempo blues-tinged mandolin were impressive enough to land him a spot on the Grand Ole Opry, but it wasn't until joining up with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs in 1945 that Bluegrass Music became locked in with a certain set of traditional instruments and vocal styling. Mandolin, rolling Scruggs style banjo, fiddle, flat-top guitar, up-right bass, and tight three part harmonies became the iconic "sound" of Bluegrass Music.
In the midst of that amazing three year run from 1945-1948 with what is arguably the best line-up of The Bluegrass Boys, Monroe wrote the song "the Kentucky Waltz." From what I've read, he claimed it was out of frustration with the popularity of the famous song "the Tennessee Waltz", as well as pride in his home state of Kentucky.
His original high-lonesome version of the song from 1946 is so iconic to me, that I decided to pay tribute with a more mellow instrumental version of the song on Reflectere, featuring guitars and dobro with my great buddy Rick Clemens on bass. I did this version as a way of saying farewell to one of the happiest musical eras of my life with the Ventucky String Band, as we often played this tune at shows starting about 2015 or so, and I knew by the time I recorded it in Ventura that I'd be moving back to the upper-Midwest in the summer of 2019.
The guitars and bass were all tracked in Ventura, and the dobro was added in Eau Claire Wisconsin in January of 2020.
This Sunday, May 10th, I'll be releasing the 11th song on Reflectere, "Salt Creek." More on that tune in a few days...