Photo: Barry with Big Mon at Belcove Inn 1995
Recently we were sent a series of provocative blogs by banjo player and former California resident Barry Willis. A bit of online research got us in touch with him, and we learned a bit of his history. Barry lived for a few years in the South Bay area during the mid-1970s and occasionally came up to Paul’s Saloon in San Francisco to check out that vibrant scene. But soon his true vocation called him away and by 1976 he was bush piloting in Alaska, later flying for United Airlines, and all the while playing Bluegrass, hosting a Bluegrass radio show, and amassing an impressive series of interviews with the founding fathers of the genre. A 600-page book, “America’s Music: Bluegrass. A History of Bluegrass Music in the Words of Its Pioneers”, followed in 1997. Barry, now retired from flying and living in Hawaii, has been writing a monthly blog based on those interviews, and has given the CBA the right to be the first in line to publish them. Ed.
Friends, this is the first monthly presentation of important aspects of bluegrass music which need definitive clarification. The source of these discussions is the huge number of conversations and first-person analyses by the people who were actually there to experience each of these topics, the pioneers of bluegrass. These discussions are aspects of bluegrass music which bear serious thought.
Why is bluegrass music so controversial?
What! You’re probably asking yourself about the audacity of the premise…the music you/we love being controversial. Why can’t we just love the music and not hear negative things about it?
So, our first discussion is that while Bill Monroe may be the “Father of Bluegrass Music,” he may not be the inventor of it. We’re going to take a look/listen to these pioneers as they talk about this topic and many more. So let’s begin.
If we look back to Mr. Monroe’s early life with his brothers Charlie and Birch, they were singing the country music of the day. It was excellent, that’s for sure. But it wasn’t bluegrass music as we understand it today. Even when Monroe joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1939, the music he was playing was excellent and even had a bit of “drive” to it (and was definitely pleasing the Opry audiences), it was not complete.
Sure, we’ve heard the critics talk about the accordion of Sally Ann Forrester in his band in the early days of the Blue Grass Boys, or the frailing banjo of Stringbean. These features helped produce some very entertaining music, but it hadn’t reached the status of being bluegrass music as we know it yet.
Curly Seckler quoted Lester Flatt (in 1944) about Stringbean: “Well, I wouldn’t want to say exactly how long [Stringbean was gone] but it was several months, and I know as good as we all loved String—and I love that kind of banjo picking because I was raised on it, my daddy played that style and I tried to learn it and I couldn’t. That’s how come I quit fooling with a banjo.. Bill told me one night after String had gone that he was trying out a new boy on the banjo. I hated to hear that because I was really enjoying the work that we was doing with a banjo. Poor old String—it just didn’t fit. He would really drag you [down] on that thumb string on those tunes like we’re doing today.”
After Stringbean left Monroe’s band, it left a gap which Monroe felt was necessary to fill, the sound of the banjo. His fiddler, Jim Shumate, knew of a banjo player who was performing on a Knoxville radio station with Lost John Miller and the Allied Kentuckians. That band also had occasional appearances on WSM which was where Monroe was playing every Saturday night on the Grand Ole Opry.
Earl Scruggs was auditioned by Bill Monroe. Opry star Uncle Dave Macon was there and watched what was happening. Lester Flatt commented, “Well, when he got his banjo out to do a little auditioning for Bill, everybody was ganged around listening just like myself because it was entertaining. And Uncle Dave was standing over there with that gold tooth a-shining, and he listened for a while and he said, ‘Aaahh, sounds pretty good in a band.’ “There was two or three playing with him you know. He said, ‘I’ll bet he can’t sing worth a damn.’”
Flatt was “thrilled. It was so different! I had never heard that kind of banjo picking. We had been limited but Earl made all the difference in the world.” [Lester Flatt Memories,” Bluegrass Unlimited, May, 1986, p. 82]
Earl spoke to author/musician Jim Rooney about the audition for Monroe. “[Before] I worked in Knoxville for Lost John Miller, I was in a group that tried for [a different] 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 for Bill then. The band included Lester Flatt, Birch Monroe, 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 to 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.” [this from Jim Rooney’s Bossmen: Bill Monroe and Muddy Waters. P. 42]
According to “Bluegrass Touches,” Bill Monroe told Dr. Charles Wolfe, “So when I heard Earl, I knew that that banjo picking would fit my music. It all come from a man in North Carolina named Snuffy Jenkins. That’s where Earl learned from, and all the pickers that played three-finger style. But he could help take lead breaks like the fiddle and would be a great help to me. So that’s why the banjo was in my music. Without bluegrass, Charles, the banjo never would have amounted to anything. It was on its way out.”
So, friends, that December of 1945 is when bluegrass music began. The speed and rhythm and proficiency of Earl Scruggs changed the Blue Grass Boys band forever. This is “classic” bluegrass music.
Lance LeRoy agrees. He told this writer, “In my mind, that was the beginning of bluegrass music. When Earl came, that was my idea of the beginning of bluegrass music.”
Notwithstanding the instant public acceptance and dominance of Earl’s “fancy banjo” (as Bill Monroe used to call it), it was Bill’s weekly presence on the Opry that allowed Earl and his terrific skills to be exposed to the world. So, without Earl, Bill Monroe could never have reached the heights of popularity which bluegrass enjoys today. And without Earl, Monroe may have never become the Father of Bluegrass.
This story and hundreds more can be found in America’s Music: Bluegrass. A History of Bluegrass Music in the Words of Its Pioneers. See
for revised digital download of this out-of-print four-pound book.
Next time we’ll talk about Bill Monroe’s fiddlers of the early 1940s. You may be surprised about this topic. Future topics may include the creation of Earl Scruggs’ banjo book, Earl Scruggs and The Five-String Banjo. This conversation with Bill Keith will amaze you. We’ll later discuss the single-string banjo playing of Eddie Adcock and Don Reno. Eddie has a lot to say.