Bill Monroe

updated 09/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/01/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Charlie Derrington had seen lost-cause instruments before—even "guitars that had been run over by trucks." Yet nothing had prepared the master restorer of the Gibson guitar company for what he saw in Bill Monroe's Nashville offices last November. Vandals had broken into Monroe's country cabin in the Tennessee hills and had taken a fireplace poker to his famed 1923 Gibson mandolin. Now it lay in a garbage bag on Monroe's desk, its punctured body surrounded by nearly 200 pieces of what could pass for barbecue kindling. As a candidate for restoration, "it was definitely a worst case," says Derrington. "I was kind of shocked."

So were Monroe's fans. He was, after all, an American music patriarch, the man who in the '40s had forged country gospel, blues and quickstep mountain fiddle tunes into a new form of folk art. Just as bluegrass music could claim Monroe, now 74, as its father, its kinship to the old mandolin he had bought for $150 back in 1941 was just as certain. For more than four decades, its bright, distinctive sound had endured—along with Monroe's high, plaintive tenor—as the music's most recognizable voice. One music writer likened its destruction to the defacement of Michelangelo's Pietà, and for a while "mandolin players and bluegrass people from all over the country were calling me, crying," says Derrington, who set to work repairing the damage as best he could.

Monroe, meanwhile, clung to the hope that he could put the instrument back into use, not just a showcase. Looking ahead to 1986, in the midst of his eighth decade, he would once again be hitting the road for more than 150 appearances. To mark his 50th year as a recording artist, he was scheduled to go into the studio in late summer, and in June there would be the 20th anniversary of his annual outdoor bluegrass festival in Bean Blossom, Ind.

Derrington toiled for three solid months, much of it with "tweezers and a magnifying glass." In February he finished, and miraculously the mandolin's old sound seemed remarkably intact. Although years ago the flinty Monroe had taken a knife and angrily carved the Gibson name out of his instrument following a dispute over repairs, he and the company had made their peace, and this time Gibson offered their work as a gift. At his Nashville workshop, Derrington returned the mandolin to its owner, then watched as Monroe gave it its first test. Says Derrington: "He had tears in his eyes."

Five months later Monroe has finished the day's first set at Bean Blossom and has come offstage to mingle with the fans at his outdoor festival. His appearance the previous night at the Grand Ole Opry didn't end until after midnight, and he has traveled here directly for the festival's first weekend. Others have traveled, too—from Oregon and Ohio, New York and Maryland—to attend this 10-day fete, and Monroe is a gracious host, faithful to the simple civilities learned from his rural upbringing.

Many of those now greeting him have camped overnight on the festival grounds, and Monroe, dressed in an off-white suit, shoes and Western hat, looks like a courtly country preacher in their midst. A potbellied guy in shorts is at his side holding a dog-eared snapshot from an earlier festival. "That was me and you in Florida when you played with Ricky Skaggs!" he proclaims.

"Good to see you again," Monroe answers politely.

"Could I have my picture taken with you?" asks a woman. "You sure could," says Monroe, slipping off his glasses and staring amiably at a camera-toting husband.

Moments later he meets a young mother holding a photo of "little Jessica back at home: She dances to your music all the time." As Monroe looks at the picture, Mom hands over an opened autograph book for little Jessica's hero to sign.

"I'll tell you something," confides another admirer as Monroe continues. "He goes around giving babies and little kids quarters. All the time."

Monroe can show a sterner side as well, and often there is more of the country preacher than appearances alone. The next day he and his Blue Grass Boys come onstage early to start the traditional Sunday morning gospel set. There's a hitch, though: For some reason the microphones have been set up wrong. Jim Deckard, the festival's 27-year-old sound man from Indianapolis, runs up from his control board under the trees and starts making adjustments. He is a rock tour veteran who has worked for Springsteen, the Cars and other big acts, and in a few minutes he has the problem solved. As he prepares to leave, Monroe looks at the T-shirt and cutoffs he's wearing, leans away from the microphone and says softly, "You need to get yourself a suit of clothes, son, if you're going to work up here with us."

For his band members, such proprieties are nonnegotiable. Monroe's son James, 45, played with the Blue Grass Boys for several years and remembers the night he forgot to wear his hat for an appearance at the Grand Ole Opry. That evening he watched the show from the wings. Worse lapses can mean a one-way ticket to the woodshed for the people Monroe employs. "They got to do what I say to do," he says evenly. "I don't want nobody comin' around workin' drunk. And a filthy mouth, I wouldn't put up with that. Bluegrass music is respectable."

Monroe's hardwood notions of respectability were shaped in the farm country of western Kentucky where he grew up the youngest of eight children. The family cut timber from their 655 acres of land, mined its coal in the fall and in the springtime planted corn and tobacco. Privately, Monroe will tell how he and his father shared a pick-me-up "dram of bourbon" before their chores every day. That habit didn't stick. The family's work ethic did. So, too, did the sounds of gospel sung at the local churches, the blues played by a black family friend and especially the fiddle music of his uncle Pendleton Vandiver, that Monroe heard as a child.

In Uncle Pen, the young Monroe found his spiritual and musical mooring. In later life he would celebrate the fiddler in song, record a bluegrass album of his dance tunes and cite his hotfoot hoedown tempos as the spark to his own later style. "He was a wonderful uncle," says Monroe, "and I could always remember how he sounded—what kind of timin' he had to his music. And that's something I learned when I was young, to keep the timin' straightened out right."

It is one of country music's ironies, surely, that Monroe never followed his uncle as a fiddle player. Older brother Birch had done so already, and with brother Charlie playing guitar, Bill was left holding the mandolin as the logical alternative in a family band. Worse yet, he was told to remove half of the instrument's eight strings because "they didn't want me to play too loud."

By the time Monroe was 16, his parents had died and, after a short stint with Uncle Pen, he followed his brothers to Indiana in search of work. The Great Depression was ready to roll, and Monroe traveled light, packing a sixth-grade education, a farm boy's muscle and a mandolin. For the next five years he worked at a Sinclair Oil refinery, cleaning, stacking and beating dented oil drums back into shape. "I enjoyed it," he says of the hard labor, "because I could handle it good." On the side, he and his brothers played their music at private house parties and went on tours as exhibition square dancers. Then in 1934 Birch dropped out of the family trio, and Bill and Charlie teamed up as a duet. With sponsorship from a Texas laxative company, they found steady work on radio; two years later, they signed their first recording contract.

The Monroe brothers cut 60 songs in all, but their harmony on records never carried into real life. After two years of sibling squabbles, they broke up, and in 1939 Monroe formed his first band of Blue Grass Boys. While the new group's mix of instruments—fiddle, bass and guitar, plus Monroe's mandolin—came straight out of the old country string band tradition, Monroe began adding his own brand of octane. What he wanted, he says, was "to give the people a new timin' to the music that they wasn't acquainted with." He succeeded. That fall the group made its Grand Ole Opry debut with a rendition of Mule Skinner Blues pushed into overdrive, and its effect was startling. "Those people couldn't even think as fast as we played," boasted one band member later.

For a few years Monroe experimented with the group's personnel and with its sound. He tried adding a jug player, an accordion, even a harmonica. "We was workin' on it, workin' on it all the time, addin' to it and keepin' out things that didn't belong," he says. When labor troubles and wartime rationing limited production of 78-rpm recordings, he went on the road, leading seven truckloads of equipment and his own traveling tent show. To boost attendance, he put his band members into baseball uniforms and challenged local teams before the performances.

In 1945 Monroe hired a Tennessee guitarist named Lester Flatt and a North Carolina banjo player named Earl Scruggs, and finally lit the fuse to the music he wanted. During the next three years, together with bassist Howard Watts and fiddler Chubby Wise, they established the prototype for a generation of bands to come. Even today, many consider that short-lived postwar group the most remarkable ever in bluegrass.

Soon, Monroe's sidemen would leave to become competitors, and his once-personal style of music would become public domain. Its reach, at times, was surprising. In 1954 a young Memphis truck driver took a Monroe-written waltz titled Blue Moon of Kentucky, changed its beat and put it on his first-ever 45. Elvis Presley later apologized to the composer for taking such liberties, but other early rockers would borrow as well. "Buddy Holly was one of the biggest Bill Monroe fans that ever lived," says country star Ricky Skaggs, a longtime friend and admirer of the bluegrass architect. "If you listen to Buddy's singing, a lot of his high-pitched stuff, he would put a little yodel kind of thing on the end because it sounded like Monroe."

Even Skaggs, Monroe's junior by more than four decades, could find much to learn from the master. For a while, "everybody who was playing mandolin was learning from Bill Monroe," he says. "His style is a mixture of Mississippi Delta blues, jazz, old-time country and a very, very lonesome Appalachian sound. I think Bill's music will go down in history as being one of the most pure, traditional, rare forms of American music. In fact, I think it really does epitomize American music."

A few months after Elvis, Monroe rerecorded Blue Moon of Kentucky him-self, this time adding a 4/4 rockabilly beat of his own. It was a rare concession. He found little to use in the newer music, and as rock's popularity picked up speed, he stuck firmly to his notions of what bluegrass should be. He spurned electric instruments and percussion, remained intolerant of band members who freewheeled with the form ("They need to get out on their own if they're going to do that") and refused to bend to an increasingly commercial Nashville sound. There were difficult times, and his struggles were often more than musical. A car accident in the '50s left him with 19 fractured bones and a long hospitalization; a life away from home left him with a broken marriage.

Eventually, with the folk revival of the '60s, Monroe's stubbornness turned to advantage. Discovered by a new generation of fans, many of them young urban musicians, he came to be seen as the one unchanging standard by which bluegrass could be judged. It is a tough standard, to be sure. Newer bands can cut their cloth to newer tastes and fashions, but not Monroe. His, after all, is a special music. "I want to keep it set," he says. "I want to keep it right."

Just right is how things are on Monroe's 288-acre farm in Goodlettsville, north of Nashville. Hard rains had shot-gunned down earlier in the week, but now sunshine is filtering through the huckleberry and gum trees. Times are busy. Four mares have foaled in the past few days—the latest just 14 hours ago—and on Monday the cattle will be wormed. Monroe has been up since 6:30 this morning working on fences.

Despite surgery for colon cancer in 1980 and for gallbladder problems two years later, Monroe is no front porch farmer. He can still plow with his favorite 10-year-old mule, chop his own wood and put in a summer's day of work. Living on the land, he says, "brings you back to the way you was raised." It's a sentiment understood by son James who, like his older sister, Melissa, 49, lives nearby. "Goin' on his farm is almost like goin' back in time," James says. "There's a feelin' you get when you go out there...."

Monroe's home on the farm is a 140-year-old tin-roofed, two-story cabin. A porch wraps around two sides, with an old-fashioned swing and a high-backed church pew for seating on summer evenings. He shares the quarters with his second wife, Delia, 45, a striking Minnesotan and the daughter of one of his former booking agents. The couple married last year, and Della confides that she has "temporarily" quit her job as an accountant because "Bill doesn't like me to work."

Monroe has no such notions for himself, of course, and by nightfall he and Delia have made the 30-minute drive down I-65 to the Grand Ole Opry. He's been a regular on its stage for 46 years and can boast that he's only missed his starting time on three occasions: twice because of car failure and once after a bridge washout. In 1971 he was honored as the Father of Bluegrass when the Country Music Association inducted him into its Hall of Fame, and he will perform at the Opry at least 20 times this year.

In his dressing room Monroe unpacks the old mandolin and runs through a few licks. "It seems like the sound is comin' back more to it all the time," he says, obviously satisfied with the instrument's recovery. Then, one by one, his band members enter the room. First is banjo player Blake Williams, 29, so clean-cut he might have stepped out of a seminary yearbook. Next is Tater Tate, the group's 55-year-old fiddler (and part-time bus driver), followed by guitarist Tom Ewing, 40, who joined the Blue Grass Boys only one month earlier. Last to arrive is bass player Johnny Montgomery, 58, who's quickly reminded by Monroe that he hasn't yet put on his tie.

While the musicians tune, Monroe quick-fingers into a new song he's written. Asked what it is, he replies simply, "The Lloyd Loar," and says no more. Monroe is a man of basic virtues, one who remembers favors given and received, and this is for the latter. Loar was the concert mandolinist who helped design the special instrument that Monroe is playing—the one that Charlie Derrington saved—and the song is a simple thanks for both.

When Monroe finishes the tune, he and the band gather in a circle and start their preperformance warm-up. Other musicians from out in the hallway begin to drift in quietly, wanting to hear this show before the show. Suddenly the room, carpeted, mirrored and modern, is filled with echoes of old Appalachia and country churches, of black men's blues and barn-dance fiddle tunes. The kaleidoscope of sound is the old-time music that Bill Monroe made new again more than 40 years ago—and will again tonight.

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