While all modern forms of music have roots somewhere, it’s always fascinating to trace them back and try and discover where they came from and how they evolved. The blues will take you back to Dockery Farms in Mississippi and jazz to Congo Square in New Orleans, although the influences of those music forms go back much further. Hip-hop got its start in New York City. Many would say Sun Studios in Memphis was where rock and roll was born, although I tend to think otherwise. Each genre tends to have its early influences and groundbreaking shifts which led to how we define them today. Bluegrass music really gained that definition in the mid 1940’s when Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt joined the already extant band The Bluegrass Boys. There is no doubt though that the man who brought them together and nurtured the evolution of the sound was the founder of that group and the undisputed Father of Bluegrass: Kentucky native Bill Monroe.
Bill Monroe was born in a small house on Pigeon Ridge in central Kentucky. That house was torn down and a new one built in its place when Bill was a kid. This replacement house is the house found on Pigeon Ridge today, but some of the original of his birth house house were no doubt incorporated into the new one. Bill was the youngest of eight children, born into a family where music was important. Since his older brothers already played the guitar and fiddle, Bill was left with the least desirable instrument in the house: the mandolin. He would go on to become one of the most famous mandolin players in American history and instigate a major shift in country music which I think of as “The Bluegrass Revolution”. In his youth on Pigeon Ridge though, his family often sat and played together, singing old gospel and hillbilly songs.
I like to think those early days were good ones and provided a lot of joy and happiness to him in his youth because Bill lost his mother when he was 10 and his father six years later. He moved in with his Uncle Pen, and they often played together. I imagine he found some solace in his music and I’m sure it brought back fond memories of earlier times.
When he was 18, Bill Monroe moved to Indiana where he worked with two of his brothers in an oil refinery. They formed a band called The Monroe Brothers and played in bars and clubs around town. They would sign with RCA Victor in 1936 and record dozens of songs.
Bill moved to Little Rock, Arkansas and then on to Atlanta where he started a band called The Bluegrass Boys, a name he borrowed from the nickname of his home state of Kentucky. He joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1939 and brought his exciting brand of mandolin picking to Nashville. While the basis for the changeover from country music had been laid, it wouldn’t be until Flat and Scruggs joined the band that it would be complete.
They played together for several years before Flatt and Scruggs set off on their own as The Foggy Mountain Boys. The Bluegrass Boys would reload with another group of young pickers and the popularity of this high-energy country music would grow and spread. This cycle would repeat countless times as more than 150 musicians would play with The Bluegrass Boys over the years.
While they had a dedicated following, it wasn’t until the folk revival of the 1960s that it really took off. It was also during this time that this style of music took the name we know it by today - dedicated to the band that made it popular: bluegrass.
Bill Monroe’s popularity would grow alongside the music he helped create and he would tour for the rest of his life. He played his last show just six months before he passed away in 1996. He was laid to rest in Rosine Cemetery, just a few miles from where he was born in Central Kentucky.
While Bill Monroe was creating bluegrass and touring the world, his homeplace on Pigeon Ridge fell into disrepair and began to fall apart. As his popularity grew, people wanted to see where this legendary musician came from and started making pilgrimages to the area. At some point, the property began to be cleaned up and finally restored to how it would have looked when Bill was a kid. Thankfully this process began while Bill was still alive, so his memories of the color scheme and furnishings could be incorporated into the restoration.
Today, the Bill Monroe Homeplace is open for tours and is an absolute must for any bluegrass fan and for anyone who wants to learn more about this integral piece of Kentucky culture. I made my visit there on a Saturday morning and had the most amazing tour of the house with Erinn Williams, one of the guides who works there. She was incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic, and obviously deeply passionate about Bill Monroe, bluegrass music and her home state of Kentucky. I loved hearing stories about Bill as a child and how he grew up there on the ridge.
Everything in the house and on the property was wonderful. I especially loved a black and white school photo of a young Bill Monroe. Bill and the teacher are the only two wearing ties in the photo - definitely a fashionable guy from the start. I also loved seeing a full list of all of the members of his Bluegrass Boys over the years, which is very much a who’s who in bluegrass history. The most interesting thing for me in the house was a photo of how it looked before restoration. It showed how much time and work has been put into the effort to restore the house. The house as it stands today is a real tribute to the dedication of the people who wanted to see Bill Monroe’s Homeplace restored to its previous glory and open to his fans and those who want to learn more about this Kentucky legend. Also, Erinn told me that she always leaves a light on in the window when she leaves so Bill has no problem finding his way back home.
I stayed there for several hours, taking photos and chewing the fat with Erinn and Cicero, the property’s caretaker. They were wonderful resources for information on Bill, bluegrass and Kentucky in general. I enjoyed my visit very much and would definitely recommend you stop by if you are in the area. It’s not far from Owensboro and you could easily make it a half-day trip. If you made it out there on a Friday afternoon, you could head a mile up the road to visit Bill’s grave in Rosine, stop in for some mutton barbecue at Slick Back Outdoors, and stay for the fabulous Friday Rosine Barn Jamboree. There you can hear great country and bluegrass music and stand in Bill’s footprints on stage. Bluegrass is an important part of the cultural identity of Kentucky and definitely something you should dedicate some time to exploring while you are here. What better place to begin your journey than the place where it all started with a young kid wearing a tie and grudgingly picking on his mandolin.
Bill Monroe’s Homeplace is located on the Blue Moon of Kentucky Highway, Route 62, just west of Rosine, Kentucky. It is generally open from 9 a.m. - 4 p.m, Monday-Saturday and 1 p.m. - 4 p.m. on Sunday. Be sure you tell them I sent you.