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Thread: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

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    Registered User ninevah's Avatar
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    Default Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    This thread springs from reading the other one currently going on in this forum about Bill Monroe the man. I'm more interested in hearing peoples take on what Bluegrass music is, as defined by Bill's innovations. I am asking for responses in a musical context, not about his personality. I know that Neil Rosenberg and others have written books that will satisfy this question. However, I've found this forum a great way to get multiple perspectives, so if this interests you too, then let's see where it goes.

    In the forum it's possible to post musical clips that demonstrate what a person is talking about, and I would find this most helpful in understanding Bill's music.

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    Registered User Mike Bunting's Avatar
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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    Quote Originally Posted by ninevah View Post
    as defined by Bill's innovations. .
    Bill didn't make innovations, he created blue grass music.
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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    Bill Monroe is almost certainly America's most influential mandolinist. He combined elements of string band music, blues, popular country music and jazz into his own synthesis, which we now term "bluegrass." In the process he experimented with a variety of instrumentation, finally settling on the "classic" mix of mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar and bass fiddle, and further defining the genre by insisting on certain vocal styles, repertoire, and approaches to performance and recording. He was, in addition, an instantly recognizable vocalist, a prolific writer of songs and tunes in the bluegrass style, and a commercially viable band leader and performer for over 50 years. During his career, he employed many if not most of the musicians who were prominent in the first two or three decades of bluegrass, who then went on to other bands and helped spread the style.

    With extremely strong opinions, and a near-jealous sense of "ownership" of the style, Monroe at times expressed resentment and dislike toward others who played music similar to his. At other times, he'd say he was gratified that his music was influential and that others were drawn to take it up. Monroe's career was affected by his overall wish to keep his music adhering to his personal vision and taste; his commercial success waxed and waned, since he was less willing to compromise with current trends in country, folk or popular music than other bluegrass artists. His financial situation was sometimes precarious, and as he attempted to manage bands with frequent turnover of musicians, the musical quality of his performances could vary.

    It would be simplistic, but based in fact, to say that after 65 or so years, bluegrass music is basically as Monroe defined it, with some extensions and sub-genres that deviate more or less from the Monrovian model. Those of us who have been close to it through the years, see more variations, often minor ones, than those who look at it from a more distant perspective. We spend time wondering about styles of banjo playing, the inclusion of instruments that Monroe never used, and performance and repertoire choices, as if these made a major difference and made certain musicians or repertoire "not bluegrass." To those with a broader view, these are developments within the genre, not heresies that warrant exclusion.

    While we can argue about whose overall influence predominates in bluegrass -- is it Earl Scruggs and his three-finger banjo style, Alison Krauss with her multi-Grammy commercial success, Ralph Stanley with his close connection to roots in mountain music -- bluegrass remains basically Bill Monroe's music. If Monroe's 1946 band could walk onstage now, 21st century audiences would recognize, approve and cheer their music. Would a modern jazz audience react the same to Kid Ory, or a rock audience to Bill Haley and the Comets? Doubtful...
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    Registered User Ivan Kelsall's Avatar
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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    Most people's 'take' on Bluegrass music,is mostly the same thing that's been stated over,& over & over........ !. Listen to the recordings of Bill Monroe - that's Bluegrass Music.Then,listen to the recordings of other bands & see if you feel that they stay within the boundaries of BM's style. If you feel they do,then 'for you' that's Bluegrass music also. ''Whether it is or isn't'' has become a very immotive subject for some folks. Many people feel that the music of 'AKUS' & 'The Punch Brothers' (to name just 2) is Bluegrass - for me it isn't. Yes,it might be 'acoustic music' in the same way as Bluegrass is 'acoustic music',but the music style of the 2 bands is very different (IMHO) in format to 'trad' Bluegrass music. In fact AKUS quit calling themselves a Bluegrass band a long while back.
    There are many perspectives to 'is it or isn't it' Bluegrass - choose your own & go with it,you'll be as right or wrong as the rest of us,
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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    Pretty much agree with everything you said, Ivan. For me, AKUS isn't BG either. I still like them and their music though and I wouldn't have any problem seeing them at a BG fest/concert. Great group IMHO. But I personally favor music that stays within the more traditional boundaries of BG. Especially some of the new or "neo-traditionalists" like Audie Blaylock, Longview, Junior Sisk, Lonesome River Band, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, among many, many others. I do like groups like Balsam Range, Dailey and Vincent, The Gibson Brothers, Cody Shuler and Pine Mountain Railroad, Newfound Road, and many other "contemporary" groups. Not much into the more "progressive" bands although I do appreciate them and their considerable talents.


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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    I think the above two posts illustrate my point: to those close to the music, certain differences in style define groups in or out of the bluegrass genre. The same differences seem less consequential to those who place bluegrass within the entire panoply of musical styles. Alison Krauss definitely started out as a bluegrass fiddle player and singer. The music she makes now shows her early influences, but has changed significantly from the music she made early in her career.

    Bill Monroe's influence over bluegrass music is still strong -- not only in the stylistic example he set, but in his expressed attitude toward innovation and "heresy" within the bluegrass format. He clearly felt a sense of ownership, not only of his own band's music, but of "bluegrass" in its entirety. Following his lead, some of us feel we can say what is and isn't bluegrass, based on our opinions of how far the musician(s) in question deviate from the Monrovian template.

    To others, it's not so important. They can catch hints or influences of bluegrass in a certain band's or individual's music, and say, "So-and-so plays bluegrass." We, who define the genre more specifically and narrowly, may disagree.

    Remember, it's a relatively new style, really less than 70 years old, if we date its genesis to the Flatt/Scruggs/Wise/Rainwater version of the Blue Grass Boys. But when you compare it with rock'n'roll, which is about the same "age," what a difference in the degree of diversity! Rock has spawned such a cornucopia of styles and sub-genres, many of which sound completely different from each other. In comparison, the differences between the Clinch Mountain Boys and the New Grass Revival seem much less significant.

    I happen to think that the ongoing disputes over what is and isn't bluegrass, have done the genre more harm than good. On the other hand, there are many BG fans who revere Monroe and his well-defined style, and tend to excommunicate those who stray farther than a short distance from that model. So in response to the original question, I would say that Monroe exercises more influence over the form and direction of bluegrass music, than the originators of other styles do over those. I would say fewer jazz musicians get "excluded" for not playing like Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker, and fewer rockers are told "that's not rock" if they don't play like Buddy Holly or Jimi Hendrix.

    Just my 2.
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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    Bill certainly brought Bluegrass to the forefront in a time in history, and he may have coined the name that stuck, but that does not mean he single handedly invented the genre as we know it. The format as we know it evolved quite fast in his lifetime, but its roots are found in African and Scottish and Irish music that was played for generations before Bill or anyone else in his time period were even thought of. While he took it to another dimension and helped focus what would be called Bluegrass, it is a synthesis of the music of many musicians of his era and the decade or so before him.

    I certainly do not meant to diminish his role in Bluegrass or his role in seeing it become a genre unto itself. Many of us remember when Bluegrass was a small sector of Country Music. Now it is a genre on its own and what we knew as Country music has been relegated to "Americana" or "Folk" music. With this redefinition of Country, Bluegrass has been able to separate itself from that genre and become its own. This was the result of the foundations and decisions Bill made as a commitment to the genre in his lifetime.

    However, Bill is also in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I believe the Songwriters Hall of Fame. That is quite an accomplishment for one who is often considered "only" Bluegrass. Certainly Bluegrass music would not be what it is today if not for Bill, but I think he would have been an accomplished musician in any genre he chose to perform. While he may not have been a Rock and Roll entertainer personally, his music was so universal that it could cross genres quite easily and the admiration for his musicianship and his songwriting skills has crossed genres where few others in the Bluegrass genre have.

    I think to limit Bill to "just a bluegrass musician" is to take away from his other numerous accomplishments. He was certainly the consummate Bluegrass musician, but he was also much more than just that.
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    Registered User ninevah's Avatar
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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    I am trying to understand in musical terminology the evolution of Monroe's music from his first band to approximately the end of the 50's. I will try to set an example of the kind of response I am looking for. I do not know the answer to my question, but I will quote from Richard D. Smith's book "Can't You Hear Me Calling - The Life of Bill Monroe" for this example. On page 56 Mr Smith writes " Bill's rhythm was special. It was a surging timing that anticipated the main beat. Not in a way that sped up the song but in a way that totally enlivened it. It was like the blues or jazz technique of laying slightly behind the main beat to create dramatic impact, except in reverse. Bill Monroe subtly jumped the timing to create energy. Monroe fully recognized the significance of his innovation, later declaring that " 'Mule Skinner Blues' set the timing for bluegrass music."

    In the Bear Family Collection "Blue Moon of Kentucky Bill Monroe 1936 - 1949" Charles K. Wolfe writes on page 30, "Almost certainly Monroe's immediate resource for Mule Skinner Blues was the classic recording by Jimmie Rodgers..."

    First the Rodgers version:



    Monroe Version:


    The forum seems to me to be an excellent place to discuss this as access to sound and video examples can be included.
    Again I am looking for musical examples, not discussion of Bill the person, though I will hasten to add that it appears to me his confidence and powerful energy were at the core of his music. In this thread show how this comes across with examples.

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    Registered User swampstomper's Avatar
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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    Well, you hit a perfect example. Jimmy Rodgers has a laconic, droll style (perfectly captured years later by Merle Haggard in his "Same Train Different Time" project). Monroe rocked out on it (this in 1939!), right from the kickoff he played himself on the guitar. The fiddle plays a bluesy counterpoint. He sings higher, tighter, as we would say now "in your face". And his direct descendents took that and ran -- listen to the Fendermen from the early 60's and Dolly Parton (complete with bullwhip sound) from about 1970. Monroe himself changed the words and went even higher in his remake from the mid 60's "New Muleskinner Blues".

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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    Alison Krauss definitely started out as a bluegrass fiddle player and singer. The music she makes now shows her early influences, but has changed significantly from the music she made early in her career.
    I think she still makes music that is very much bluegrass with AKUS, but she uses her voice to experiment off & on in other genres. I like that they aren't afriad to take the bluegrass instrumentation and style and apply to songs that for their complexity, chord progressions, etc. would otherwise be a far cry from bluegrass....

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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    Allison Krauss plays bluegrass for people who reall dont like bluegrass. But her band can crank out hardcore bluegrass as good as anyone.

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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    This is the song that sold me on mandolin and it's my favorite song of all time. My Last Days on Earth by Bill Monroe.

    Funny thing ... it's Monroe's only song that really isn't Bluegrass! Enjoy!

    For some reason the video came up as porn when I checked it ... I don't know what happened ... try this ...

    www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmyllnFXFp4
    Last edited by Mandolin Mick; Aug-03-2012 at 5:49pm. Reason: YouTube video came up as porn.

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    Registered User Mike Bunting's Avatar
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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    Quote Originally Posted by Mandolin Mick View Post
    This is the song that sold me on mandolin and it's my favorite song of all time. My Last Days on Earth by Bill Monroe.

    Funny thing ... it's Monroe's only song that really isn't Bluegrass! Enjoy!

    For some reason the video came up as porn when I checked it ... I don't know what happened ... try this ...

    www.youtube.com/watch?v=rmyllnFXFp4
    Wonderful video. All the lonesome beauty of bluegrass coming together in one piece of music.
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    Martin Stillion mrmando's Avatar
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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    I think if AKUS and Punch Brothers don't profess to be bluegrass bands, then the polite thing to do is to not call them bluegrass bands. The whole point of the Punch Brothers seems to be to see what other kinds of music can be played with bluegrass instrumentation.

    I posted several comments on a blog entry by someone calling Old Crow Medicine Show a bluegrass band (and dissing Monroe in the process). I like OCMS, but to my knowledge they've never professed to play bluegrass, and they certainly don't use bluegrass-style rhythm or technique. I hear a lot of influences in their music but bluegrass isn't one of them.

    I like many different styles of acoustic music, but I don't like them all ... even if they have bluegrass instruments. Mountain Heart's Force of Nature CD was heavily promoted as "bluegrass" by Skaggs Family Records ... but to my ears it's a country CD with bluegrass instrumentation. I bought King Wilkie's Low Country Suite without knowing they'd essentially given up on bluegrass and become an acoustic Americana band. Neither of those discs really grabs me.

    As for "My Last Days on Earth" ... if Bill recorded it, it's bluegrass.
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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    Found this link to a whole live show from the latter years
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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    Bill Monroe and his sidemen were innovators of major importance. While Monroe was a key figure, I would argue that Jimmy Martin is the one that has had the greatest stylistic influence on the modern bluegrass band sound. A few Monroe style bands are out there (David Davis & WRB for example) but the majority of groups out there owe more to Jimmy than to Bill.

    The OP asked for sound clips to illustrate ideas. For what it is worth, rather than posting a clip or two, I would suggest bypassing the snack and going for the full meal. Take a trip to the library or County Sales etc to listen to all of the recordings by Monroe, the Stanleys, Osbornes, Jim & Jesse, Reno & Smiley, Jimmy Martin etc and then dig into the 2nd/3rd generation bands such as Country Gents, Red Allen, New South, Quicksilver, Bluegrass Album Band, Boone Creek etc. Obviously, this will take some time but your investment in time and effort will give you a far better understanding than looking at a couple of clips on youtube.

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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    It seems to me that a lot of pickers were/are great and very talented and start out playing what is called "Traditional bluegrass" after they make a dent and get known a bit they want to branch out and chage things a tad and try and secure their own sound...AKUS has to make a living playing music and for sure there is more money out there if you can play to more types of fans so for the sake of making money I don`t fault her for "crossing over", however I won`t purchase any of her recordings as I don`t consider her to be bluegrass, some pichers like Triska is doing the same thing, even hardcore bluegrass bands make recordings that are non bluegrass, Jim and Jesse did quite a few that weren`t anywhere near bluegrass...

    There will never be a sure fire definition for bluegrass as long as there is more than two people listening to it, they cannot agree on what it really is...I just know it when I hear it and having a guitar,banjo, fiddle, mandolin and bass doesn`t make it bluegrass, it`s the way it is presented and the story that it tells in most cases....

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    Quote Originally Posted by mrmando View Post
    I think if AKUS and Punch Brothers don't profess to be bluegrass bands, then the polite thing to do is to not call them bluegrass bands. The whole point of the Punch Brothers seems to be to see what other kinds of music can be played with bluegrass instrumentation.



    I like many different styles of acoustic music, but I don't like them all ... even if they have bluegrass instruments. Mountain Heart's Force of Nature CD was heavily promoted as "bluegrass" by Skaggs Family Records ... but to my ears it's a country CD with bluegrass instrumentation. I bought King Wilkie's Low Country Suite without knowing they'd essentially given up on bluegrass and become an acoustic Americana band. Neither of those discs really grabs me.

    As for "My Last Days on Earth" ... if Bill recorded it, it's bluegrass.
    There's an interview with Thile and Chris Eldridge in a recent issue of Acoustic Guitar, where Thile clarifies the issue. Your statement about about Mountain Heart doesn't make sense to me. But then I don't really know what "country" means today. Lady Antebellum? Miranda Lambert? Taylor Swift?

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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    Quote Originally Posted by swampstomper View Post
    Monroe himself changed the words and went even higher in his remake from the mid 60's "New Muleskinner Blues".
    1950 to be exact. And Vaughn Horton wrote the new lyrics.

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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    Quote Originally Posted by allenhopkins View Post
    Remember, it's a relatively new style, really less than 70 years old,
    Whenever we consider one of the great creative genius innovators of the past, we have to remember that we live in the world as it is AFTER that innovation. Things we take for granted as commonplace or even background today were not conceived of back then.

    I think we do a disservice to Monroe and the magnitude of his creation and its wake throughout musical history, if we don't contemplate the state of old time music and country music before Monroe.

    Unlike many inventions and innovations, I don't think there was anything innevitable about what Bill did. Listening to old time string band music, and early country music, fiddle tunes, and the like, there is no hint of what was to come. It wasn't "in the air" at the time. It wasn't something that a lot of folks were working on and Bill just gets the credit.

    Yea there may have been a few banjo innovators, and some say you can hear precursors of Scruggs in Charlie Poole. (I can't.) And yea there was the blues and it was beginning to influence many types of music. But none of these things by themselves would have lead to bluegrass on their own, I don't think. Bill put them together, with a mandolin (of all things), and changed everything. Changed everything to the extent that it is difficult to imagine a world before bluegrass.

    Today music is soaked in blues. We can't escape those intervals. Its everywhere. Everyone who picks up an instrument today eventually wanders into the blues, intentionally or not.

    Scruggs style banjo is just about the only banjo style most people know about. Its what everyone expects when they see a banjo.

    There would be "country" fiddling, but I am not sure it would be as fast and wild as we expect it to be.

    Would there even be a mandolin, outside of the classical world and the world of Greeek and Italian folk music?
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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    Charlie Monroe is owed a debt as well. Any serious study of Monroe's music and it's contributions has to start with listening to "The Monroe Brothers." Charlie Monroe was without question the first bluegrass guitarist, before it was ever named or even conceived of, he was playing the exact pattern of the future style, backing up and supporting Bill's (already smoking) mandolin playing with his powerful rhythms and driving bass runs on his Gibson Jumbo. Charlie and Bill's playing would (in the future) prove to be what a traditional bluegrass band would sound like if only the guitarist and mandolin player showed up.
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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    Quote Originally Posted by ralph johansson View Post
    1950 to be exact. And Vaughn Horton wrote the new lyrics.
    Thanks for the correction. I should never post w/o having my trusty Monroe discography at my side. Although, the composer credits are not always what they seem; in this case I suppose they are correct.

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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    The "drive" / "groove" of the strong back-beat mandolin chop, the driving banjo, the guitar G-run, the 'on top of the beat' rhythm, and the entire band on the same track. The 'on the beat' banjo complimented by the syncopated mandolin licks and the bluesy long drag of the fiddle. The 3 and 4 part harmony with a clear, strong tenor.

    The fact that he carried the whole band on his shoulders when he was a stout younger man.....now THAT did it. John nor Paul nor Ringo nor George ever did that!

    Bill is the MON.

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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    Quote Originally Posted by re simmers View Post
    The "drive" / "groove" of the strong back-beat mandolin chop, the driving banjo, the guitar G-run, the 'on top of the beat' rhythm, and the entire band on the same track. The 'on the beat' banjo complimented by the syncopated mandolin licks and the bluesy long drag of the fiddle. The 3 and 4 part harmony with a clear, strong tenor.

    The fact that he carried the whole band on his shoulders when he was a stout younger man.....now THAT did it. John nor Paul nor Ringo nor George ever did that!

    Bill is the MON.

    Bob
    Exactly right, then add the element of the instrumentalists trading off on lead breaks between verses, another difference between old-time and bluegrass.
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    Default Re: Bluegrass Music, Monroe's Musical Legacy

    Quote Originally Posted by Marty Henrickson View Post
    Exactly right, then add the element of the instrumentalists trading off on lead breaks between verses, another difference between old-time and bluegrass.
    That little piece there is gigantic, I think. It creates all kinds of opportunity to show case, and to develop star quality. It changes the emphasis of the music and the nature of the show. Gigantic.
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