If he were still alive, Bill Monroe would be 100 years old on Sept. 13, 2011. Unfortunately for the world of music, he passed away in 1996, just a few days short of his 85th birthday. Folks from around the world have such reverence for this Rosine, Ky., native remembered as the “Father of Bluegrass Music” that they’ll be flocking to Western Kentucky to celebrate the date anyway.
Come September, both the International Bluegrass Music Museum (IBMM) at RiverPark Complex in Owensboro and the Bill Monroe Homeplace in Rosine are partnering to roll out one amazing musical welcome mat. The event will feature a series of master concerts presenting as impressive a roster of bluegrass performers as you’re likely to see gathered in one place, commemoratory activities in the house where Monroe learned his licks, and jamming in every available corner from dawn till dusk and way beyond.
On Saturday, Sept. 10, Rosine will remember its favorite son with a glance back to young Bill’s era during Homeplace Life Day at the family farm, where costumed guides will ply old-fashioned trades and crafts. That Sunday, a reverent tour of the Rosine Methodist Church, the site of Monroe’s funeral, will be followed by a gospel service and music at Rosine City Park.
And on Tuesday, his actual birthdate, fans can toast the master of pickin’ with a slice of birthday cake and a side of bluegrass jamming.
But it will be from Sept. 12-14, when festivities roll about 45 minutes down the road to Owensboro, that history will be made. During the museum’s Bill Monroe Centennial Celebration, every active member of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame and their bands will perform in a series of concerts. Honored guests include many of the earliest bluegrass musicians and the Blue Grass Boys, who played with Monroe in his band. A number of those, such as Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Stringbean (David Akeman) and Del McCoury, became bluegrass legends in their own right.
“This will be the biggest lineup of bluegrass bands in history,” said Gabrielle Gray, the museum’s executive director. “It will take three days to get that many bands onstage.”
Along with these all-star performances, there will be two stagings of an original musical, “The Life and Times of Bill Monroe;” a display of Bluegrass Boys’ memorabilia; an exhibit of the works of artists who were influenced by Monroe; and two other Centennial exhibits already on display. In addition, a documentary eight years in the making will premiere in which, through their own memories and tales, the musicians who knew him best create a large-as-life Monroe in a remarkable film.
Monroe was the youngest of eight children born to a music-loving farm family in Rosine. Early on, he became proficient on mandolin, guitar and vocals and in 1934 joined two other siblings to form the Monroe Brothers, but soon replaced them with a larger string ensemble named the Blue Grass Boys. By 1939, he had been inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1939 and for the next 50 years, Monroe combined his inspirations with the talents that passed through his band to create and mold the bluegrass sound celebrated today.
Actually, the Bill Monroe 100th Birthday Celebration is a yearlong tribute to bluegrass music and a lively observance of the influence this homegrown genre has had across the globe. Since January, bluegrass festivals and centennial events have kept fingers pickin’ and toes tappin’ across the commonwealth and will continue through the fall.
One of those, the Rosine Barn Jamboree, has been going on for years in a big ol’ barn on the National Register of Historic Places, where music and dancing hold sway every Friday at 7 p.m.
Progressive bluegrass bands take the RiverPark stage June 23 through 25 at the IBMM’s annual ROMP (River of Music Party) rather than traditional groups, as the latter will have scads of stage time in September.
“We wanted to illustrate the broad influence that bluegrass has had on acoustic music as we know it today,” Gray explained.
One of only a scant handful of musical genres original to America, bluegrass has a sound that originated from a melting pot of world music – Scotch-Irish, African, jazz, black and white Southern gospel, and blues – that Monroe blended into an exciting new form, named for his own band. That, in turn, has given birth to other musical styles as progressive, old-time and jazz bands, which explains the broad appeal of bluegrass and the reverence given the talented Monroe.
“You know, I never wrote a tune in my life,” he once said. “All that music’s in the air around you all the time. I was just the first one to reach up and pull it out.”
To learn more about this remarkable man, his music and the festivities honoring him, peruse the sidebar websites.
Even if you can’t make it to Western Kentucky in September, you can still be a part of the action. Across the state on Sept. 13th, bluegrass music lovers in every city, hill town and hollow are asked to go outdoors and sing Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” exactly at “high lonesome” noon CST (Monroe’s home time zone) to pay homage to this great musician and beloved Kentuckian. Start practicing now!