october 2011


A Bill Monroe Centennial Moment

Tears Fell On Rosine

Goodbye, Mr. Bill. Goodnight. Rest in peace. We love you. We'll meet again someday.

By Mary Yeomans

(Continuing our year-long tribute to the centennial birth year of Bill Monroe, this month’s installment is a moving, first-hand account of Big Mon’s funeral. In April of 1996 Mr. Bill had been incapacitated by a stroke, thus spelling the end of a professional touring and recording career that had started in 1929. As his friend Emmylou Harris observed upon hearing this news, “We all knew that if he ever got to the point that he couldn’t perform that he wasn’t going to make it. Music was his life.” He crossed over on September 9, 1996, four days shy of his 85th birthday, and was buried in his beloved hometown of Rosine, Kentucky, on September 12. Originally published at the University of Kentucky’s BGRASS-L “Bluegrass Music Discussion” group, Mary Yeomans’s detailed reporting of that day’s events is now accessible online at www.frank.mtsu.edu/~baustin/montrib.html.)

There just never seems to be enough time to do all you would like to; all those little things that mean so much to those around you; all the good intentions that never get acted upon.  To have meaningful conversations with all the people you want to at a gathering such as the IBMA or, in this case, at the funeral of Bill Monroe in Rosine, Kentucky, on Thursday, September 12, 1996, just one day shy of what would've been his 85th birthday.

With a heavy heart I left Nashville in the morning after working a few hours, hoping to arrive in Rosine, Kentucky, early enough to make some photographs of the folks I knew would be gathered outside the little white country churchhouse, hoping to visit with some friends.

It was a gorgeous sunny morning in Tennessee, a beautiful day to be out on the road, windows rolled down, "Kentucky Mandolin," "Jerusalem Ridge," "The First Whippoorwill" and, yes, "My Last Days on Earth” fortifying me as each moment brought me closer to my last glimpse of the man I saw as a pioneer, and counted among my dear friends, a man who had paid his dues, lived a good long life, had resolved his quarrels, and was finally ready for that better life.

Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, ‘The First Whipporwill’

I felt so strange. There was the overwhelming sense of loss, the feeling that things would never again be quite the same, yet there was a feeling of peace and quiet, too. I found my appreciation for the man and his music had actually grown more intense with his death; I'd spent the past several days, late into the night, listening only to the music of Bill Monroe, true life music, white man's blues. In the rare moments when I wasn't listening to Bill, I was thinking about him, reliving precious moments frozen in time, or I was talking with friends about him, or e-mailing people I'd never met, whose voices and faces I wouldn't recognize, acquaintances who'd reached out to me through BGRASS-L, something that might never have existed if Bill Monroe had not been born in 1911 to J.B. and Malissa Monroe in Kentucky, if he hadn't been a cross-eyed child who felt rejected and hid in the barn when company came to the house.  If he hadn't been the man who persevered against all odds to become the legend we all miss so much. If he hadn't been the man who never quite believed in his worth, who always seemed to need to prove himself, his strength, his power, his endurance. The man who pushed himself to greater accomplishments, a real-life inspiration.

What if he'd been born in India or Africa? Would there have been bluegrass as we know it today? Would Jerusalem Ridge have been written? What if Bill had not had such a commitment to his vision of what the bluegrass music should be, how the instruments should sound, how the parts should be sung?  What if he hadn't insisted it be done over and over until it was right?  What if he'd succumbed to rock and roll and turned his back on old-time music and the blues, two of his greatest musical influences? Bill gave his life, his energy, his body and soul to keep the bluegrass music alive, and at a tremendous cost to him and to his family. It is my belief that there are no coincidences, and that all these things occurred because it was the time and the place, the destiny of Mr. Monroe, to do just exactly as he did; to unite us in a music we love so dearly.

Not that Bill was solely responsible for what has brought us to this forum, but, as so many have said, if it weren't for bluegrass, what would we be doing with all our vacation time?  Who would our friends be? I doubt I'd have friends in Japan, the Czech Republic, and Russia. Friends in virtually all of the United States.

Bill Monroe’s gravesite in Rosine. The epitaph closes with: ‘God blessed Bill with a rare musical genius and the willpower and determination necessary to bring his music to millions of fans around the world. For many of those fans and for all of us who are members of his family, Bill Monroe is bluegrass music!’ Below that is a sentiment from Bill’s son, James William Monroe: ‘Walk softly around this grave for my father Bill Monroe rests here as the blue moon of Kentucky shines on.’

Anyway, my thoughts on the way to Rosine were strange and wonderful, sad and happy all at the same time; the music I'd been listening to for so many years had a new meaning for me; I think I was just listening much more closely than I ever had before; and it was as if I'd never heard it. I found my admiration for the man I'd called friend growing exponentially as I listened to the lyrics he'd penned, to the lonesome tunes he'd written, while my eyes perceived the territory he'd often traveled by horse or mule, hauling railroad ties or going to play at a dance with Uncle Pen.

It's only about 40 miles from Nashville to the Kentucky border.  In that span, the day went from radiant sunshine to cloudy and overcast. In Kentucky, it seemed that all the clouds were gathering and moving together in the same direction as you and I...toward Rosine. Soon there was a strange light in the darkness of the day, an occasional ray of sunshine finding it's way through the dark, thick, stormy sky. It seemed like a gospel kind of day to me; I wanted to sing and shout; I wanted to cry. It was my need to drive the distance alone, with only my thoughts and the music of Bill Monroe as my company; it felt so right that way.

Approaching Hartford, Kentucky, just 10 miles down the road from Rosine, a soft, light rain began to fall, I thought, like the teardrops rolling down my face as I listened to Mr. Monroe singing Kentucky Waltz, cloud drops were falling down my window. It seemed fitting that the clouds, surrounding the hills and hollers Mr. Bill loved so well and immortalized in song that they would live forever in our hearts, had been gathered together over the little community church, watching over the friends and family clustered there, shedding their own tears at this bittersweet goodbye.

Ralph Stanley, ‘Two Coats.’ Dr. Ralph performed this at Bill Monroe’s funeral.

Arriving in Rosine 30 minutes before the service, I started seeing longtime friends. Though it had clearly been raining in Rosine, the sun was starting to peep through, creating a warm light; the sky was smiling as I walked toward the little Methodist Church and the kindred spirits congregated there, talking quietly. There were cars everywhere, TV cameras, reporters with pads, pens and cameras running about, people of all ages, Volvos and beat-up pickup trucks parked alongside each other.

A line of people moved solemnly up the steep church steps, stuffing themselves through the narrow doors, signing the guest register, standing patiently in line to catch a last glimpse, return a quarter to Mr. Bill, say a prayer, to weep. There wasn't time to linger, the line advanced and moved out the back door. The church was chock full of people; probably far more than it had ever welcomed on Easter Sunday. The gaiety of Easter was absent; they all needed to be there.

The quarters had multiplied since yesterday's Ryman service, like the loaves and fish. Today there were two long and glistening rows of quarters adorning the casket lid. While the Ryman service was done with a closed casket, Mr. Bill was visible to those inside throughout the country-style service.

There's no point in saying who was there; we were all there.  I saw more bluegrass people there than at the Ryman, and also more people I didn't know. Lots of former Bluegrass Boys were there; Bill would've liked that.

While the sanctuary was overflowing with people, many of whom stood throughout the hour and a half service, there were three or four times as many people on the lawn behind and around the church listening via speakers, which had been placed there. One policeman estimated 1,000 people attended Bill's funeral; another person reported 1,200.

‘The Old Crossroads,’ one of Bill  Monroe’s most requested numbers, is performed by three members of Monroe's Bluegrass Boys Band: Roger Smith (fiddle and baritione vocals), Vernon McQueen (guitar and lead vocals), and Dwight Dillman (banjo), along with Talmadge Law (guitar and bass vocals) and Mike Butler (mandolin and tenor vocals). Recorded at Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park in Bean Blossom, Indiana. Del McCoury sang this at Monroe’s funeral service.

The service began with Ricky Skaggs singing "Amazing Grace." A woman with a beautiful voice seated near me at the back of the church joined in, and soon many of us in the crowd became the choir and raised our voices in memory of Mr. Monroe. The final verse had two words, "Praise God," and most present seemed to pick up on that verse rather easily. Maybe it was the stifling heat, maybe the sadness of the moment, but a woman near me, face soaked with tears, left the building shortly after the service commenced.

Representatives of the State of Kentucky and Ohio County said a few words and offered their sympathy. The family were seated in the front of the church at a 90-degree angle to the crowd, the head of Bill's casket just a couple of feet from their pew. Somehow it seemed that James and Jimbo were less distraught today, though it probably wasn't so. It was a hard time for them.

Ralph Stanley got up and sang one of my favorite Stanley numbers, "Two Coats" with Ricky playing mandolin and singing with him. I will forever associate this song with the last time I saw Bill, and love it even more than before. A very emotional Ralph moved us all beyond tears and beyond words with his heartfelt vocals.

The Dixie Hummingbirds, ‘Standing By the Bedside of a Neighbor.’ Ricky Skaggs performed this vintage black gospel tune at Bill Monroe’s funeral.

Ricky then sang, "I Was Standing By the Bedside of A Neighbor." Ricky broke down during the first couple verses, so emotional, at such a loss, he could barely whisper the words through his sobs; it was the time I've felt most in tune with Ricky in all these years; my spirit was right there with him, my heart crying, urging him on.

A beautiful African-American woman named Alma Randolph from Ohio County, KY, blessed with a sweet, soothing, uplifting voice, sang "Take My Hand Precious Lord," and I felt that Bill would've really liked that. It certainly wasn't bluegrass or blues style, but with the tremendous influence of Arnold Schultz always so evident in Bill's music, it seemed right that she would be such a wonderful part of the service, of the circle of life present there.

Various Bluegrass Boys got up, led by Wayne Lewis, with Art Stamper and Robert Bowlen on fiddle, Dana Cupp on banjo, Skaggs singing tenor, and Wayne on guitar and did "The Little Community Churchhouse." Del McCoury then sang "The Old Crossroads" with Ricky and others.

The Bluegrass Boys were then recognized: some of the Bluegrass Boys in attendance (my advance apologies, I'm sure there were many there whom I did not recognize): Dana Cupp, Robert Bowlen, Jimmy Campbell, Billy Rose, Doug Hutchens, Butch Robins, Ralph Lewis, Buck White, Glen Duncan, Wayne Lewis, Del McCoury (and Ronnie), Sandy Rothman, Lamar Grier, Kenny Baker, Bob Black, RC Harris, David Deas, Tater Tate, Guy Stephenson. Undoubtedly a few who were present went unnoticed, no slight intended.

Bill Monroe plays his ‘My Last Days on Earth’

"I Saw the Light" sung by Carlos (Brock?) was next, followed by "Life's Railway to Heaven,” sung by Dan Jones. Doug Hutchens was then introduced. A very emotional Wayne Lewis, voice cracking, pausing every few words to take a breath, fighting his grief, then announced that Doug Hutchens had documented 175 full-time Bluegrass Boys, people who had worked with Bill on a regular basis over a period of time...trying to follow in his footsteps.

Wayne Lewis came up to sing and said, "This is probably the second hardest time it's ever been for me to sing this song; the first time was when I sang this at Jimmie Skinner's funeral, and I thought probably that was the hardest thing I'd ever done in my life, but this time might prove to be harder.” He then asked everyone to join in and sing "Precious Memories" with him. He said Bill always liked for the people to join in and sing it with them at the festivals. Everyone then wholeheartedly sang the choruses.

James Monroe got up and said a few words about his father.  He said "he had friends all over the world...they came from all over the country to the Ryman yesterday...he's here with us today; he's looking at us and hears us; and I think he appreciates every one of you folks; good singers here, some of the best in the country; I know he's in a better place."

Several Opry members were present; Skeeter Davis--she said that through the years she always had such a love and attachment to Mr. Monroe; was so impressed with him. “What a testimony he's left behind." She mentioned Ricky, Vince, and all the Bluegrass Boys and all he'd given them and left behind for them; she said "what a big birthday party there'll be in heaven for Bill tomorrow while he celebrates with Jesus and Minnie and Roy. We love you Bill, happy birthday in Heaven!"

Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, ‘Mighty Dark to Travel.’ Video posted at YouTube by TheRetroCafe

Tammy Sullivan then said, "I can't really tell him goodbye, James, I just have to say good night. I have had many occasions to talk with Bill about the Lord, shared many wonderful experiences with him. He was a man who loved his friends, he loved everybody but more than that, he loved the Lord. I feel that today he's looking down on us all, he sees us all and he hears us all, but there is rejoicing in heaven because one more has entered, and he'll be playing that mandolin and he'll be walking the streets of gold and he'll be waiting for all of us.”

Several other colleagues got up and said a few words about Bill. Bobby Osborne got up and said, "There's so many things I could say about Bill Monroe, it would probably take me 3 or 4 days to tell you all of it. I never was a Bluegrass Boy, not because I didn't want to be, but I always sang the same part that he did, and played the same instrument. He and I both knew that there wasn't room for two of us in the same band." "The last 15 or 20 years Sonny and I have been very, very close to Mr. Monroe. We have shared the same dressing room with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys and Jim and Jesse...and I want to say once again that I am so thankful that I lived in the days of Bill Monroe."

Alma Randolph then sang a very beautiful song, "Don't Cry for Me."  Here are some of the words, a beautiful message:

Here we are again, that old familiar place, when the wind will blow, no one ever knows the time or the place.

Don't cry for me, don't shed a tear, the time I spent with you will always be, and now that I am gone, I want you to carry on, but don't cry for me…

No one is to blame, my death was meant to be, don't you carry guilt or shame, the reason why I came soon you will all see.

Chorus:  Don't cry for me.

Disobedient souls that we are, everyone cried.

Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, ‘I’m On Way Back To the Old Home’

Preacher Baggett, pastor at James Monroe's Assembly of God church in Goodlettsville, then gave a lengthy sermon in the sweltering heat. The service finally drew to a grateful close.

It seemed that the crowd had grown exponentially since I'd last felt the fresh, cool air of Rosine on my face. Everywhere the eye could see were upturned faces of all ages, awaiting the appearance of the procession of pallbearers carrying Bill Monroe home. The seconds ticked slowly by as we all waited for them to arrive, carrying our beloved leader down his final flight of steps to the long black limousine which waited quietly to transport him to his final resting place. The casket lifted into the vehicle, the door closed, the crowd of friends, and bluegrass boys, neighbors, and the curious all made their way up the road, just a short distance from the lonesome old cemetery to the newly dug grave which waited to hold the remains of our father, our grandfather, our friend, our mentor, our Bill Monroe.

Flowers everywhere. Lots of roses. The large white clouds, the fall blue sky. The sun. Alma Randolph began to sing, "The sun shines bright on my old Kentucky home...weep no more my lady, oh, weep no more today, we will sing one song for our old Kentucky home, for our old Kentucky home faraway."

Lonesome. Together. Sobbing. Touching.

Ralph Stanley, ‘Gloryland.’ Dr. Ralph and Ricky Skaggs performed this at Bill Monroe’s funeral service.

Ricky and Ralph sang the Stanley number, “Gloryland,” the chorus of which is, "Weep not friends I'm going home...up there we'll die no more...no coffins will be made up there, no graves on that bright shore."

Ralph and Ricky then led us in "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," some silence, then a spontaneous "Blue Moon of Kentucky" was softly sung. A prayer. The crowd moved slowly. The tent surrounding the grave was peeled away, light shining on the small box that contained the earthly remains of the larger-than-life man, Bill Monroe.

Jimbo Monroe later told me that before the casket was lowered, Ralph Stanley put his hand on Bill's casket and said, "We'll meet again someday." He turned to Jimbo and told him that Bill had been at Carter's funeral and had gone to Carter's casket and said, "We'll meet again someday." It meant a lot to me.

Two men with shovels began do the job some of us couldn't bear to observe; others chose to add a handful or two to the grave. Many picked up a rock-like hunk of clay from the graveside to carry home with them. I could imagine the stories they might tell to their children or their grandchildren...stories of a great man, the man who was so powerful, the man who was so real, so close to the earth, as one with the soil, the trees, the creatures, the little children.

Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky’

What would I tell people one day, maybe not so far off, when they would stand breathlessly, holding on to every word, as I told of seeing Mr. Bill Monroe on stage, how he always looked so much bigger than he really was when he was in front of a crowd, of hearing him play Dusty Miller, singing “Body and Soul” or “Close By” or “Kentucky Waltz,” watching him dance with Emmylou, what would I tell them? Could they possibly understand what that meant to me, to all of us? How could they ever know what a force he was, how he had more presence than a roomful of rich, well-educated men? How to put into words what I'm having such a difficult time feeling?  I'm trying and I'm crying. Howto type from memory because your eyes are too blurred to see the letters on the keys?

Bluegrass Boys reunion photo by the statue of Uncle Pen. Many hugs, fellowship, silence. The wind blowing, warm and soft on that old cemetery mound. As the sun set, as the last goodbye was said, the road back out of Rosine seemed so different than the one I'd drove in on. A peace. I turned on my tape player and then, as I drove past the house where Charlie Monroe had lived, a house just a half mile or so below the house where JB and Malissa and Bill and all the Monroe kids had been raised, I swear to God, "My Last Days on Earth" began to play. It was meant to be that way.

Goodbye, Mr. Bill. Goodnight. Rest in peace. We love you. We'll meet again someday.


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