Bill Monroe, the iconic Father of Bluegrass Music, would have turned 100 years old on Tuesday (Sept. 13). The longtime Grand Ole Opry star died in 1996, yet his legacy is being kept alive with numerous concerts, exhibits and tribute albums.
Ricky Skaggs, the Del McCoury Band, Roland White and Nashville Bluegrass Band will commemorate the 100th anniversary of Monroe’s birth with a concert at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University on Sept. 28. Skaggs famously took one of Monroe’s signature songs, “Uncle Pen,” to No. 1 on the country charts in 1984. In addition, McCoury and White once toured in Monroe’s ever-changing band, the Blue Grass Boys.
To see a revered piece of Monroe’s legacy, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville continues to exhibit his beloved Gibson F-5 mandolin. Monroe bought the instrument in a pawn shop in Miami in the 1940s. By bringing banjo player Earl Scruggs into the mix in December 1945, along with guitarist Lester Flatt, bassist Cedric Rainwater and fiddler Chubby Wise, the definitive sound was cemented at the Ryman Auditorium during a Grand Ole Opry appearance.
Yet, well-versed bluegrass fans know that the Gibson F-5 has a rich history of its own. After a dispute with Gibson, reportedly because repairs were taking too long, Monroe scratched off the company name from the mandolin’s pearl inlay during the early 1950s. And according to the Gibson website, the instrument had to be completely restored after it “had been smashed to smithereens with a fireplace poker by an irate woman.”
At the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in downtown Owensboro, Ky., the original nameplate — scratches intact — is part of a special display honoring Monroe’s 100th birthday. The artifact is owned by John Carter Cash and Laura Cash, the son and daughter-in-law of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. The Gibson mandolin that Monroe played while the F-5 was being restored is also on display. Monroe’s award for his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1997 (as an early influence) is part of the museum’s permanent collection. They’ve also dedicated a wall paying homage to Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys — somewhere between 130 and 150 members.
This week, the museum has booked Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Jesse McReynolds, Bobby Osborne, J.D. Crowe and dozens of former Blue Grass Boys for a concert series. A new documentary and musical, both based on Monroe’s life, will be unveiled, as well. Leading up to the centennial celebration, the museum is hosting dozens of pickers from around the world who have enrolled in Monroe-style mandolin classes.
Naturally, Monroe was one of the primary inductees to the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Hall of Honor in 1991, along with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Although the IBMA is now based in Nashville, the Hall of Honor remains in Owensboro. In addition, the city’s museum of fine arts and botanical garden are both paying homage in unique exhibits.
About 30 miles southeast of Owensboro, you’ll find Jerusalem Ridge. One of Monroe’s most enduring instrumentals is named for this spot, although locally it’s known as the Homeplace. The renovated site is open every day. Just be prepared to drive up the rugged hill.
Fortunately, the blue sign on Highway 62 is easy to spot. Carrying the blue theme even further, this stretch is known as the “Blue Moon of Kentucky Highway,” named for one of Monroe’s most famous compositions. Elvis Presley recorded the song as the flip side of “That’s All Right, Mama,” in 1954, about seven years after Monroe found country success with it.
A birthday party, complete with cake, will take place at the Homeplace lawn on Tuesday, followed by music from David Parmley & Continental Divide, King’s Highway, Blue Lonesome and more. Just down the road, pause in Rosine, Ky. At the main intersection in town, turn at the general store, and the cemetery is about a block away. The likenesses of Monroe and his beloved dog, Stormy, adorn the tombstone. The youngest of eight children, Monroe is buried next to his mother and father. His brother, Birch, rests nearby.
If you happen to pass through on Friday night, you can enjoy live bluegrass at the Rosine Barn Jamboree. Take a moment to enjoy the bronze plaque hanging on the side of the barn — one of Monroe’s final requests for bluegrass fans making the pilgrimage. It’s a beautiful opportunity to hear bluegrass music drifting through the open air.
Meanwhile, a four-day event titled Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Hall of Fame & Uncle Pen Days Festival begins on Sept. 21 in Bean Blossom, Ind. The traditional-leaning lineup boasts James Monroe (Bill’s only son), Ralph Stanley and Jesse McReynolds, as well as Larry Sparks, James King Band, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out and the Boxcars, among many others.
Later in the month, the Del McCoury Band will perform a free show on the grounds of the Ryman on Sept. 27. McCoury sang lead in Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1963, setting the stage for leading his own band. McCoury, who will join the Bluegrass Hall of Honor this year, will pay tribute to his former boss on a new album, Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe, due on the same day as the Ryman concert.
Of course, Monroe will linger on everyone’s mind during the IBMA World of Bluegrass week, held Sept. 27 to Oct. 2 in downtown Nashville. Because Monroe performed at festivals and the Opry well into the 1990s, it will be easy to find some old-timers with stories to share.
If you’re planning a road trip to investigate Monroe’s life, a few new tribute albums will keep you entertained along the way.
Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice and Dailey & Vincent are featured on Bill Monroe Centennial Celebration: A Classic Bluegrass Tribute on Rounder Records. The 28-track collection also features cuts by Stanley, Claire Lynch, Blue Highway and Bobby Osborne & the Rocky Top X-press. Don’t miss Michael Cleveland’s version of “Dark as the Night, Blue as the Day,” featuring Dan Tyminski and Vince Gill.
In addition, Rebel Records has compiled With Body and Soul: A Bluegrass Tribute to Bill Monroe and Let the Light Shine Down: A Gospel Tribute to Bill Monroe. The compilations feature the Country Gentlemen, Del McCoury, the Seldom Scene, the Stanley Brothers and Mac Wiseman. Listen for Monroe himself on the secular volume, joining Kenny Baker on the very first recording of “Road to Columbus.”
Monroe, a Country Music Hall of Fame inductee in 1970, went on to receive countless honors, including the first-ever Grammy given in a bluegrass category. One hundred years after his birth, though, the high, lonesome introduction of bluegrass music remains his greatest achievement.