Bill Monroe and Bluegrass Music

Bill Monroe’s Childhood Home / Personal Photo

Sitting atop Jerusalem Ridge near Rosine, KY is the family home of William Smith “Bill” Monroe, the “Father of Bluegrass Music.” He was born near there on September 13, 1911.

Bill was the youngest of eight children born to James Buchanan “Buck” and Malissa Vandiver Monroe. Buck was a farmer and saw mill operator, owning 655 acres along and adjoining the ridge. He made his money through timber, coal, tobacco, corn, molasses, hay, and livestock. Malissa was musical; she played fiddle, accordion and harmonica, and was a singer of old-time ballads. 

Bill and his siblings (Harry Carlisle, Speed V, John Jasper, Maude Belle, Birch, Charlie Pendleton, and Bertha Lee) were all musically talented. Harry and Speed played the fiddle, Birch played the fiddle, cello, bass, and guitar, Charlie played guitar, and Bertha played the guitar and sang. They all accredited their musical talents to their mother and maternal uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, also known as “Uncle Pen,” who was an “oft-time fiddler whose infectious rhythm shuffle with the bow caused him to be in great demand at local square dances.” (Can’t You Hear Me Callin’
The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass, By RICHARD D. SMITH

Uncle Pen’s Influence on Bill

With Bill being the youngest of eight children, there were some significant age ranges within the family. Bill’s father was 53 when he was born, and his mother was 40. His oldest brother was 21, while his youngest sister was 5. Unfortunately, these ages impacted Bill the most. He lost his mother in October of 1921, just a few days after his 10th birthday. He then lost his father a few years later in January of 1928, at the age of 16.

After loosing both of his parents, Bill moved in with his Uncle Pen who lived just over the ridge. Uncle Pen had already had an influence on Bill prior to his parents’ deaths. Bill told an interviewer once,  “he’d {Uncle Pen} bring his fiddle and he’d stay a night or so, and after supper, why, we’d get up around him and listen to him fiddle – maybe an hour, hour and a half. My father (Buck) would call bedtime then.”

Bill lived with his uncle for two years, until the age of 18. During that time, Uncle Pen continued to influence Bill and his musical talents.

“They would have Sunday afternoon get-togethers out in the yard or they would have them at night,” Ingram said. “They would just move the furniture out and have a get-together with music and even a little dancing.”

Merlene Austin, Ingram’s sister, also gives tours of Uncle Pen’s Cabin.

“This is probably where bluegrass music started, if you want to know the bottom line,” Austin said from the cabin’s front porch. “Bill lived here for two years with his Uncle Pen, and he got a lot of music from his Uncle Pen Vandiver.”

Austin said that Uncle Pen not only taught Monroe all about the fiddle, but also treated his nephew fairly when they would perform at local square dances together.

“Whatever money they got, Uncle Pen would give him half of it and treated him like an equal,” she said.

Geraldean Ingram and Merlene Austin give tours at Uncle Pen’s Cabin near Rosine, KY. Click here to read the article.

From Chicago to Charlotte

After moving from Uncle Pen’s cabin, Bill followed his brothers Birch and Charlie north to Chicago where they became a musical trio. Birch played fiddle, Charlie played guitar, and Bill was left with the mandolin.

Shortly thereafter, Birch left the trio. Charlie and Bill decided to continue their music as a duo, becoming the Monroe Brothers. The two moved to Charlotte, NC in 1935 and “distinguished themselves by their hard-driving tempos, piercing harmony, and Bill’s lightning-fast mandolin solos.” (Country Music Hall of Fame). In 1936, they recorded their first single for RCA, which did well. In 1938, the duo broke up after fighting as family will often do.

The Blue Grass Boys

Bill created a new band that he would name the Blue Grass Boys, after his home state of Kentucky, the Bluegrass State. The Blue Grass Boys completed two recording sessions with RCA, one being Jimmie Rodgers, “Mule Skinner Blues.”

Bill then went on to Nashville to audition for the Grand Ole Opry with his version of “Mule Skinner Blues” that he had recorded. He was hired in October 1939 and the rest they say is “history.”

He quickly became a household name, but his style of music would not be called “bluegrass” until later, around the 1950s.

While no one was yet calling Monroe’s style “bluegrass” (this would not come until the mid-1950s), many of its basic elements were already present, including its pulsing drive and the intensity of Monroe’s high-pitched vocals. During World War II he added the banjo, first played by David “Stringbean” Akeman, and experimented briefly with the accordion and harmonica, which complemented the basic mandolin-guitar-fiddle-bass combination he would always retain. (Where guitar was concerned, Monroe himself was a formidable instrumentalist and set high benchmarks for his band members through the years.) In 1945 he added the revolutionary three-finger banjo picking of Earl Scruggs, which provided bluegrass with its final building block. Monroe’s late-1940s recordings for Columbia, made with Scruggs and Lester Flatt, his singer-guitarist at the time, are now widely regarded as definitive.

Country Music Hall of Fame

Uncle Pen Forever Remembered

Famous Names

Many of Bill Monroe’s band members throughout the years went on to create their own bluegrass groups, creating many famous names that became synonymous with bluegrass music.

  • Lester Flatt – guitarist
  • Earl Scruggs – banjo
  • Howdy Forrester – fiddler
  • Joe Forrester – bassist
  • Chubby Wise – fiddler
  • Howard Watts – bassist
  • Carter Stanley – guitarist
  • Jimmy Martin – lead vocals and rhythm guitar
  • Rudy Lyle  – banjo
  • Various fiddlers:
    • Merle “Red” Taylor 
    • Charlie Cline 
    • Bobby Hicks
    • William Hicks
    • Vassar Clement

Classic Bluegrass Songs

by Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys

I’ve added this video simply because I couldn’t pass up the JAM session! A MUST WATCH!

Our Visit

You know we always have a story to go with our visits. When we headed out for this one, my daughter asked where we were headed. My response, “to the holler.” I guess she didn’t believe me, as her response was, “Surprise me!” So, I did!

I wanted to make this trip because I had never been to this side of Kentucky. I wanted something in the western direction, but something we could still reasonably do in a day. I knew Bill Monroe’s home would be a pretty quick stop so I had to find something else to add to make it a day. Owensboro and the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum was the perfect combination for a day of music history, something we hadn’t done before.

We headed out via the Bluegrass Parkway. I have traveled parts of the highway before but nothing as western as this. It was absolutely gorgeous countryside. This day made me wish to be the passenger, so I that I could take photos of the rolling countryside. The drive is worth it for the scenery alone.

As we pulled into Rosine, we were greeted with Welcome signs. I couldn’t help but slow down and try to snap a picture, only to be scolded by my daughter. My mother said nothing, as she’s the one who taught me to do it!

Welcome to Rosine, KY sign / Personal photo

Before we could get to Monroe’s home place, I noticed a sign for Uncle Pen’s cabin! No way! Of course, I knew Uncle Pen from Bill Monroe’s famous song, but I hadn’t the slightest idea that 1) Uncle Pen was a real person and 2) his cabin was in the same town! Off the main road we ventured, following signs to his home, only to find the gates locked because it didn’t open for another half hour.

Uncle Pen’s Cabin sign / Personal photo

With that we decided to head on to the home place and return a little later. Back up to the main road we returned, and off to Bill Monroe’s family home. The turn off was very clearly marked, and we followed the winding lane up to Jerusalem Ridge.

Jerusalem Ridge sign / Personal photo

Bill Monroe’s Family Home

Upon arriving at the home, my daughter declared that she was not getting out of the car. I guess she had flashbacks of our adventures the prior summer when we were lost in the hollers of Kentucky. The location had a similar feel, the difference was that I knew where we were this time! Eventually she agreed to get out of the car and we explored the Monroe Home Place.

The house was built in 1917, and is a single story, 5 room home with a double-sided stone fireplace on one end and a wood burning stove in the center. I believe for the time, this was a really nice home. I did think to myself that I couldn’t imagine raising 8 children in this home, but then remembered the age ranges. It was highly unlikely that they all lived in the home at one time.

On the walls of the bedroom to the right of the kitchen were photos of the home before it was restored. It looked like it had been left to nature. I’m sure it took a lot of work to restore it in 2001. It looked to have new flooring, but other than that, I’m pretty sure it was as close to the original as you can get.

I found the architecture to be very interesting. Each room led to the next, there was no hallway. It felt like a shotgun home, only long rather than deep. Each room also had it’s own front and back door. I’m sure this was for air circulation in the summertime when air conditioning wasn’t a thing. It must have been tricky trying to place furniture in these already tiny rooms that had doors on all four walls (with the exception of the end rooms of course).

Of the 5 rooms, one room was the kitchen. The other four were bedrooms. I suspect that one was more of an entry way, as it was fairly narrow, but it was set up with a bed it in on the day we visited. There was not a sitting room, but one would think there had to have been one. I am certain that the rooms with the double-sided fireplace were bedrooms. These rooms were a little larger in size.

All the rooms were filled with memorabilia; albums, photos, marriage licenses, etc. that told of Bill Monroe and his music career.

It is free to tour the home. There is a guide on site, but you really do guide yourself. the day we visited, the guide was there to answer questions. He informed us that Uncle Pen’s cabin was a reproduction of the original. He also filled us in on the Bill Monroe Museum in Rosine, and the Jerusalem Ridge Bluegrass Celebration held on the grounds in September.

After exploring the yard for a few minutes, we were off to our next stop. The problem was, we weren’t really sure where the next stop would be.

Next Stop?

I pulled off on the side of the road as we discussed exactly what we wanted to do next. We discussed Uncle Pen’s cabin, but decided against it since it was a reproduction and not the original. With that we decided our next stop would be Owensboro as originally planned.

I pulled onto the main road heading west, just as my mother starting flipping through a little brochure we had picked up at the family home. She noted that the Monroe family was buried in a cemetery in Rosine. Well, all you have to say to me is cemetery and I’m there, because every great roadtrip has to include a cemetery! One more time I turned the car around, and we headed back toward Rosine.

After driving around in circles a few times and practically staring at the cemetery, but not knowing it was the one, we finally pulled into the cemetery drive. My daughter was done with us by this point, as she is no longer a fan of our cemetery adventures and even less of a fan of driving in circles. She opted to stay in the car, for real this time, while my mom and I quickly found Bill Monroe’s headstone, it is the tallest in the tiny cemetery, and the final resting places of his family as well.

Now to Owensboro? Not Quite!

Right across the main road from the cemetery was the small Rosine playground, and my daughter requested that we stop for a bit so she could play. How was I to say no to a 15 year old that wanted to take time to be a kid!?! I was so excited to see an old-school metal slide and swing when I pulled up to the park. Unfortunately, the sun was not shining, so she couldn’t get the real experience of burning her backside as she went down the slide! She did experience the tallest slide ever, the friction of the dragging sneakers, and the pain in the arms from hanging too long. My job was done, I had introduced her to being a real kid of the ’70s!

Off to Owensboro!

Yes, this time we really did head west down the Blue Moon of Kentucky Highway for Owensboro. Next stop, lunch, the riverfront, and the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and Museum!

I hope you have enjoyed the first half of our 1st Summer Trip of 2022! Stay tuned for the second half of our day in the next post!

Until then, get out and see Kentucky!

Happy Travels!

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