October 2011


A Bill Monroe Centennial Moment

When Lester, Earl and Chubby Came To Town

‘Great music has to have great men to play it’

(Ed. Note: In this month’s installment of our year-long celebration of the Bill Monroe Centennial, we look back on the origins of Monroe’s classic Blue Grass Boys lineup featuring Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Chubby Wise, how they changed bluegrass music, and the travails they endured simply trying to make a living and spread their new bluegrass sound to a larger audience.)

As is always the case, great music has to have great men to play it, and Bill had the talent for picking the right men at the right time. His band became his instrument so much as the mandolin, and after five years Bill was really coming into his own as a leader. Things began to really fall into place in 1945. Bill hired Lester Flatt to play guitar and sing lead for him. Lester was about Bill’s age, and he had worked with Charlie after Bill and Charlie had broken up. His voice was light and easy and it blended with Bill’s better than anyone’s had before.

“When a singer comes with me,” Bill said, “I’ve got to work on it to get our voices right. When Lester Flatt came with me, he was weak, you know. I couldn’t hardly hear him sing beside of me. He would listen to me, how I would sing a song, and how I would handle the words and he would learn kindly under that. And singing in quartets he’d know he’d have to get in there. I thought Lester made a good singer with me. Pretty fine.”

After Lester had been with Bill for a while, a young banjo player who played in a new three-finger style was brought to Bill’s attention. He was from over near Shelby, North Carolina, and his name was Earl Scruggs.

Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs in a vintage photo from their early days together: ‘It was everybody pulling for the same thing in the way of a band and it was like one for all and all for one,’ Monroe said.

“To start with, I wanted the five-string banjo touch and Stringbean was the only man around and then Earl Scruggs came long and gave it a real boost with that kind of banjo playing,” Bill said.

Earl Scruggs recalls how he came to work with Bill: “I worked in Knoxville for Lost John Miller. I was in a group that tried out for the show there. We didn’t make it, but Lost John asked about the banjo player in the group, and I started working with him. Then he came to Nashville to start a Saturday morning program. We still lived in Knoxville and worked there and we would come over to Nashville to do the Saturday show. I was friends with Jimmy Shumate, who worked with Bill then (the band included Lester Flatt, Brich, Jim Andrews on tenor banjo and comedy, Shumate and Bill). Each Saturday Jimmy would want me to quit Lost John and go with Bill. Then towards the end of 1945 Lost John disbanded, and I told Shumate that I was out of a job and would probably go back home, so he set it up for Bill to listen to me. Bill came over to the Tulane Hotel and listened for a couple of tunes. He didn’t show much reaction, but he asked me to come down to the Opry and jam some. He showed interest, but I think he wasn’t sure exactly of the limits of it or how well it would fit his music, but he asked me if I could go to work on Monday and I said ‘Yes.’”

Soon after Earl Scruggs joined the band, a fiddler from Florida named Chubby Wise, who had been with Bill earlier, rejoined the band.

Bill Monroe: “Art Wooten started, then Tommy Magnus, then Art came back, then Big Howdy Forrester came and worked on up until he had to go into service, then Tommy came back in ’43, Then Chubby Wise came up looking for a job one Saturday night and he wanted to try out. He’d been in a swing band and he just couldn’t fiddle. He was fighting it to get it like Howdy had it. Howdy played some pretty bluegrass music. ‘Footprints In the Snow,’ her really played it pretty.”

But Bill challenged Chubby, and he was determined to “fight it” until he had it. It might have had something to do with the Spanish blood in him, but Chubby was to become one of the most soulful fiddle players bluegrass was to see. He would put in a lot of blues licks and he had a sweet tone that meshed beautifully with Lester and Bill when they sang.

Bill Monroe with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, ‘Little Cabin Home On the Hill.' Says Scruggs of Monroe: ‘He was high on my list as a musician, and he had a solid beat that could support anything you wanted to pick. He would spend a lot of time just tightening up the group. Some rehearsals we wouldn’t sing a song. We would just concentrate on the sound of the band.’

This particular band, which included Lester, Earl and Chubby, with Bill’s brother Birch on bass, set the style for bluegrass bands to come. “Blue moon of Kentucky,” “Molly and Tenbrooks,” “Mother’s Only Sleeping,” “Wicked Path of Sin,” “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky,” “Bluegrass Breakdown,” and many others that the group recorded for Columbia at the time became classics of bluegrass music.

It was an exciting time to be with Bill, but it was not easy. He was always pushing a man, trying to get more out of him, testing him. This went for everything, not just music. The weeks were the seven-day kind, the pay little, and sleep generally accomplished while sitting up in the car on the way to another show. Yet through it all was a togetherness and a spirit generated by the music they found themselves playing.

It was a memorable time for Earl Scruggs: “Back then the term ‘sideman’ wasn’t used as it is today. It was a leader and his group and you all worked together. It was hard work but we had a lot of fun. I loved Bill like a brother and he was always good to me. He took great interest in the work he was doing, and I felt appreciated. He was high on my list as a musician, and he had a solid beat that could support anything you wanted to pick. He would spend a lot of time just tightening up the group. Some rehearsals we wouldn’t sing a song. We would just concentrate on the sound of the band.

“We were working all the time. Sometimes we wouldn’t see a bed form one end of the week till the other. It theaters we would d four of five or six shows a day from eleven in the morning until eleven at night. Sometimes we would do what was called ‘bicycling’--we would play a show in a theater--then while the movie was on go play in another theater and come back to the first one while the movie was on in the second.

“It was must then to make it back to the Opry on Saturday night. Sometimes if we were on the East Coast somewhere, it was all we could do to make it back. But the Opry meant so much to the people then in the towns. When I was at home people who didn’t have a radio would go to a neighbor’s and they would all sit around listening to the Opry. So we would never miss it no matter where we had to come from.

“It was hard traveling then on bad roads in a stretched-out car with no place to lie down. Sometimes you’d feel so bad and fall asleep and then wake up and someone would tell a story and we’d laugh and feel good again. But Bill would never let the music go down no matter how tired we were. If a man would slack off, he would move over and get that mandolin close up on him and get him back up there. He would shove you and you would shove him and you would really get on it.

“We played in rain, we played in snow, we played where the power would go off and we would have to play by lantern light with no sound. We had two bad wrecks, but nobody got hurt. The way we had to drive to make dates it’s a wonder we weren’t killed. But we made it, and it toughened us up to encounter and overcome these difficulties. It seemed to make Bill stronger an it brought out the deep feeling and love he had for what he was doing.”

Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, ‘Bluegrass Breakdown’ (1948), with Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt and Chubby Wise. Says Scruggs: ‘When I started here no one had heard the style before and people would gather around me like I was a freak almost. Bill started featuring banjo tunes like ‘Molly and Tenbrooks’ and ‘White House Blues,’ and he wrote ‘Bluegrass Breakdown’ to feature the banjo and I had ‘Dear Old Dixie’ worked out. Some of these tunes started catching on and he started featuring me pretty heavy and I appreciated it.’

This sense of togetherness was shared by Bill: “Working with a lot of the boys down through the years I’ve tried to help them and see that they played their part right. A lot of them have played their part well and you wouldn’t have to help them too much. But there’s been many young kids that have started to work with me that I have really taken a lot of pain with and when he got to where he could carry his part with the fiddle or banjo or singing and the guitar man was coming in there and you had a good bass man, it just made it into a good combination together, and it was everybody pulling for the same thing in the way of a band and it was like one for all and all for one.

“I don’t like to impose on nobody. I think they should see things that need to be done, you know. Just like in music--if I can help anybody, why I want to do it. I don’t mean to make them think, ‘Well, hell, you think you’re the smartest thing that ever walked.’ That ain’t it. If I can help, I want to. And he might have things that might help me, but I study them, you know, and I’ll never take something from him that he’ll ever find. If I’ve taken a note from anyone, why I wouldn’t take it to steal it, or use all of his note. I might get the idea or something and work it into the mandolin. Bu there’s been many a note put on the banjo from the mandolin. Earl’s taken note after note. And there’s fiddlers that play the way I think it should be played, and it’s a big help to bluegrass music. I think, to now how to set that note right in there, you know, and to let it be separated from the other note, and not let one note hurt the other one, I’ve tried to be a leader, you know, not a boss. I never did like to try to boss somebody and give him a hard time to go without he’s lazy as a dog. If he’s too lazy or hard to get out of bed, well, we’ll have trouble. And I just can’t go along. And I don’t like a drunk, you know. I can’t take anybody that something means more than his music, if his music is his living. Though I’ll go along with him some, I think anybody ought to see things that ought to be done.”

Probably the most significant change in the bluegrass sound occurred at this time. The banjo now came up to the fiddle and the mandolin as a lead instrument. The three-finger picking style that Earl Scruggs had been developing was an exception to the old-time two-finger picking style. Others were working in the same direction--Snuffy Jenkins for one, Don Reno for another. The difference was that Earl joined Monroe and Bill began to feature Earl on every show. The new sound was heard by thousands who couldn’t believe that so many notes could be played on a banjo so smoothly. The audience tore the roof off the Opry House. It was a new experience for Earl.

“I had heard Snuffy Jenkins play with a three-finger roll and my older brother did some,” Earl recalls, “but when I started here no one had heard the style before and people would gather around me like I was a freak almost. Bill started featuring banjo tunes like ‘Molly and Tenbrooks’ and ‘White House Blues,’ and he wrote ‘Bluegrass Breakdown’ to feature the banjo and I had ‘Dear Old Dixie’ worked out. Some of these tunes started catching on and he started featuring me pretty heavy and I appreciated it.”

Bill Monroe discusses his early years, the evolution of the Blue Grass Boys and his thoughts on the Bean Blossom festival. Sharon White and Doug Dillard pay tribute to Mr. Bill in interview segments as well. A rare interview from 1986. Posted on YouTube by WIUtheweeklyspecial

The singing was better than ever, too. Lester and Bill blended together lie honey and butter. On songs like “Sumer Has Passed and Gone” or “Mother’s Only Sleeping,” Lester’s voice could be soft and wistful, evoking past memories seen through a twilight haze. On fast numbers like “Lovin’ Another Man” or “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky,’ his voice had a smoky, light quality as it skimmed over the top of the melody, swooping low here and high there. And wherever Lester was, Bill was on top, singing effortlessly even in falsetto.

The best singing that the group did was on hymns, which Bill felt strongly about. Some were traditional, others he wrote, and all were done with precision and care. Bill’s brother Birch sang bass at the time, Earl sang baritone, Lester lead, and Bil tenor. But Lester’s voice was pitched at tenor range, so Bill was actually singing high tenor. The hymns were generall complex, involving various patterns of leads and repeats, with solo passages for the bass and high tenor as well as the lead. Between verses, Bill would insert a brilliant mandolin break. Before the Bluegrass Quartet there had been no singing of this kind on the Opry, and no other group ever could match Bil’s group at doing this material. Hymns were the solid base of his music.

Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, ‘Wicked Path of Sin’ (1947)

“That’s the main thing, I think,” Bill said. “To let people know that you believe in what you’re doing. That it’s true. On gospel songs some people didn’t see how I could up with such good titles--as wicked as I was, was the words they put it. And people talking, you know, they really didn’t now. You can’t judge people like that. I don’t think I’d be as wicked as people who drinked and gambled and smoked and fought every day. As far as being wicked, I don’t think that I would be any more wicked probably than the ones that was talking about it. And many, many people have told me that my songs changed them. And it’s not only hymns that moves people. There’s a lot of bluegrass that moves you too. Might not move you in that way, but they still move you. In fact a lot of ‘em still moves me--or other people that can really sing a good song.”

Excerpt from James Rooney’s Bossmen: Bill Monroe & Muddy Waters, published in 1971, now out of print but available from sellers at www.amazon.com



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