Bill Monroe: Ninety-Nine and Counting…13 September 2010
William Smith Monroe was born on September 13th, 1911. Yep, while we were busy playing the countless tunes that Uncle Bill contributed to the canon, the centennial of the “Father of Bluegrass” has been creeping up on us.
Monroe died in 1996, and while we no longer have him around to share his music and glare at his sidemen, there is a veritable army of masters of “Monroe Style Mandolin.” Among the upper ranks of this faithful cohort is Skip Gorman. Gorman has played a variety of traditional music. For many years, he performed with guitarist Richard Starkey as the duo Rabbit in a Log. As the name suggests, they favored repertoire from the dawn of Bluegrass. Gorman and Starkey still play together when they can. Here they are performing a classic Monroe fiddle tune in a workshop at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival:
That composition— “Get Up John”— uses a highly unorthodox tuning for the mandolin. Working from the lowest to highest strings, the tuning is AF#-DD-AA-AD!* Gorman tells the story of Monroe borrowing his mandolin to play “Get Up John” at a show in the late sixties. Gorman was just a lad at the time, and it was of course an honor to have the Great Man play his instrument. In truth, however, Monroe probably made the gesture so as not to risk busting a string on his own mandolin.** That tale, some version of which I’ve heard from more than one picker, seems emblematic of Monroe in many ways, in that it shows him at once engaging with the audience and operating from some squirrelly personal motive.
Although several Monroe tunes feature alternate tunings, in and of itself, that doesn’t define Monroe Style Mandolin. What does? Well, here’s a very partial list:
- A percussive use of the right hand. In addition to inventing the classic “bluegrass chop,” Monroe’s playing was characterized by what mandolin ace Ben Pearce calls a “really aggressive and often rhythmic tremolo.”
- Building lots of “open” intervals into his harmonies
- Allowing open strings to ring while playing notes on a neighboring string
Monroe liked to talk about the “ancient tones” that he built into bluegrass, and those big harmonic intervals and chiming open strings did indeed forge a connection with music from bygone eras such as shape note singing and other still more archaic traditions.
But bluegrass— the genre Monroe helped invent— has never been purely a retrograde musical style, and Monroe was always equal parts throwback and pioneer. Ricky Skaggs, among others, likes to draw the connection between Monroe’s propulsive playing method and the early rock n’ rollers. Skaggs points out that Monroe’s boogie-woogie riffs on certain breakdowns prefigure rockabilly by a decade or so.
So, Happy 99th, Mr. Monroe. Cousin Curly predicts a Global Bluegrass Awakening this time next year, so let’s all keep practicing.
Yer Pal— Curly
* PEDANTIC POSTSCRIPT #1: There is some discussion out there as to the order in which the G string should be tuned on “Get Up John”— AF# or F#A— with the consensus leaning toward, “It don’t make no differ’nce!”
** PEDANTIC POSTSCRIPT #2: The risk of busting a string is mostly in returning to normal tuning, when you crank the top strings back up to E.