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Bill Monroe; Creator of Bluegrass Music

September 10, 1996| From Times Staff and Wire Reports

NASHVILLE — Bill Monroe, who combined fast-picking mandolin, banjo and guitar with a "high lonesome" singing style to create the distinctly American musical style known as bluegrass, died Monday. He was 84.

The "Father of Bluegrass" died at a hospice in Springfield, Tenn., after suffering a stroke earlier this year, according to the Grand Ole Opry, where Monroe had performed since 1939.

Monroe influenced such bluegrass legends as Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, as well as newer stars such as Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss. Far beyond bluegrass, he influenced other country singers and rock legend Elvis Presley.

Monroe's best known song was "Blue Moon of Kentucky," which he wrote in 1946 and which Presley recorded in 1954. The song was designated a Kentucky state anthem in 1988.

"That makes me feel real good," the modest Monroe told The Times at the time.

Other Monroe records included "Kentucky Waltz," "Mule Skinner Blues," "Pike County Breakdown" and "A Letter From My Darling."

A perennial favorite was "Uncle Pen," which he wrote as a tribute to the uncle who helped rear him, fiddler Pendleton Vandiver. Monroe also founded an annual bluegrass gathering known as the Hall of Fame and Uncle Pen Day Festival. The song achieved reinvigorated popularity in 1986 when Ricky Skaggs' recording was rated the nation's No. 1 country record.

As a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist, Monroe was a headliner around the world. He sold more than 50 million records, was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970, and was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 1995.

The musician's life story was the basis of a 1994 film about the roots of bluegrass, "High Lonesome," written and directed by Rachel Liebling.

Monroe continued to perform in as many as 200 concerts a year into his 80s. When he headed a "Legends of Bluegrass" concert at Orange County's Pacific Amphitheatre in 1987, he was described by Times critic Randy Lewis as "a spry mandolinist and a plaintive vocalist . . . [who] also proved to be an exuberant dancer, turning in some energetic steps with a young woman plucked from the audience."

Bluegrass music relies heavily on banjos, mandolins, acoustic guitars and fiddles, with lightning-fast picking and a yodeling vocal style. It gets its name from Monroe's band, the Blue Grass Boys, and the grass of his native Kentucky.

Monroe could play most of the string instruments but was best known as a mandolinist. While performing, he nearly always wore a coat and tie, with a white cowboy hat crowning his silver hair.

In the 1940s, he hired Flatt and Scruggs for his band--Flatt on guitar, Scruggs on banjo--and they became two of the most acclaimed musicians in bluegrass history.

Monroe was born near Rosine, Ky., the youngest of eight children. He learned to play after he was orphaned at 11 and taken in by Vandiver.

Survivors include one son, James, and one grandson.

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