- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 12, 2000

NASHVILLE, Tenn. Bluegrass music founder Bill Monroe deserves to be ranked with giants of American music who achieved wider fame, claim admirers, who include his biographer and country star Ricky Skaggs.

"He is no less or no more important than Louis Armstrong or Muddy Waters, or Elvis or any of them," says Mr. Skaggs, who has just released a Monroe tribute album.

The accomplishments of Mr. Monroe, who died four years ago Saturday (Sept. 9), went beyond creating bluegrass, an undeniably remarkable achievement. His 89th birthday would have been Wednesday.

Bluegrass music acoustic, driving, emotional, earthy, intricate, sentimental was a strong subgenre that rarely crossed into the commercial mainstream when Mr. Monroe died in 1996.

But every decade of American music since the 1930s when he was a member of the Monroe Brothers with his brother Charlie has been touched by his genius.

A mover and shaker in country music during the 1940s, Mr. Monroe influenced rock 'n' roll in the '50s and helped revive folk music in the '60s. He was a precursor to the confessional singer-songwriters of the '70s, and a touchstone for the New Traditionalist country artists of the '80s and the alternative country music scene of today.

"He deserves to be ranked with Louis Armstrong, Gershwin, Presley, Sinatra," says Richard D. Smith, author of a new Monroe biography, "Can't You Hear Me Callin"' (Little Brown).

"It's certainly true that these other artists sold more records than he did," Mr. Smith says. "While these other more famous figures have had more specific influence, I think that Monroe has had a much broader influence."

Mr. Skaggs' tribute album "Big Mon: The Songs of Bill Monroe" (Skaggs Family Records) features the Dixie Chicks, Dolly Parton, John Fogerty and Bruce Hornsby, who interpret such classics as "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and "Rocky Road Blues."

Bill Haley's "(We're Gonna) Rock Around the Clock" bears a suspicious resemblance to "Rocky Road Blues," and Mr. Hornsby admits that one of his best songs was a direct steal from Monroe.

"It's called 'Rainbow's Cadillac,' " Mr. Hornsby says. "I made it about a playground basketball legend. But it is 'Uncle Pen.' "

Mr. Skaggs says Mr. Monroe's skill as a songwriter has been overlooked.

In putting together the tribute album, "We wanted to show him off as … a pioneer of the singer-songwriter-musician. He's in the Songwriter's Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the country music and bluegrass music halls of fame all of those."

Mr. Skaggs has James Taylor, Shawn Colvin and Manhattan Transfer set for a second volume of Monroe tributes, and he's working on Paul McCartney.

"Elvis Costello is going to write lyrics to one of Mr. Monroe's instrumentals," he says.

Mr. Monroe was born in rural Rosine, Ky. He was a cross-eyed and shy child who hid underneath his home to avoid people. He practiced singing in the fields so no one could hear him.

Mr. Smith's biography tells of nearly unbelievable emotional cruelties that Mr. Monroe endured. He was virtually ignored by his siblings, and when his mother died, he watched the body being carried away without any explanation from his family.

"He certainly had this sense of alienation to put a modern term on it of lonesomeness from his childhood," Mr. Smith says.

As an adult, Mr. Monroe was highly competitive, desperate for love and acceptance. Tales abound of his womanizing, feuds with Earl Scruggs and other competitors, and snubs of other musicians. (The latter was at least partly due to his poor vision and shyness.)

"Monroe was very much like an Olympic athlete in his desire to be the best … in everything he did with his life," Mr. Smith says.

When kicked into the mud by a bull at his farm, Mr. Monroe got up and kicked the bull back.

"It's not apocryphal," the biographer says. "I got the story of the bull incident from an eyewitness. The bull's rear haunches seemed to come up off the ground, Mr. Monroe kicked him so hard."

Mr. Monroe's romantic life inspired some of his best songs, says Mr. Smith, who writes that Mr. Monroe's "My Sweet Little Georgia Rose" was inspired by an illegitimate child. The book asserts that "Can't You Hear Me Callin' " and other love songs were inspired by his stormy relationship with Bessie Lee Maudlin.

Scrolling back through the pages of history, the Monroe Brothers ("What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul") stand as one of the finest brother-harmony acts in country music.

After the duo broke up in 1938, Mr. Monroe started the Blue Grass Boys. With the help of key members like Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Jimmy Martin, a new kind of music began to emerge.

"He created this new music, taking elements from the old, white traditional fiddle-playing, African-American blues, jazz elements, pop-music elements," Mr. Smith says.

Bucking the "country hick" stereotype, the Blue Grass Boys dressed in suits and were cleanshaven.

"Bill's father was a prosperous farmer. That was really how good country people dressed and behaved. They were not barefoot in bib overalls with jugs of alcohol by their side," Mr. Smith says. "When Monroe was fighting this hillbilly image, he was really fighting for a truer image of country life than the people who were trying to popularize it with the hillbilly image."

Bluegrass was wildly popular until rock 'n' roll exploded. Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis were Monroe fans.

"It was like he played the mandolin with a rock 'n' roll heart," Mr. Skaggs says. "It wasn't even called rock 'n' roll in those days, but he played a mandolin with that kind of attitude. I think that really did spur that whole movement with young people."

Mr. Smith compares Mr. Monroe to John Ford, the director of classic Western movies.

"Ford had a great influence on American filmmakers and European filmmakers because of his art and his style," Mr. Smith says. "Yet because he made Westerns, he was sort of relegated by the critics off to just being considered somebody who directed Westerns.

"Monroe is considered just as the father of bluegrass. He's really more than that. He's a great creator and much more than just this niche artist."

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