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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