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Monroe Foundation Owes Large on Mandolin

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With just over two weeks left to make its last payment, the Bill Monroe Foundation still owes $965,000 for the bluegrass star’s famed mandolin:

    The Rosine-based organization has until Oct. 26 to make a payment of $965,000 for Monroe’s 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin, which is stored in a Hendersonville, Tenn., vault.

    If the group doesn’t come up with the money, the mandolin on which Monroe performed classics such as his “Blue Moon of Kentucky” will revert to his family.

    And it likely would go on the auction block again.

    But Campbell Mercer, executive director of the Bill Monroe Foundation, says he’s confident that the mandolin, built by Gibson craftsman Lloyd Loar, will come home to Kentucky.

    “What we’re doing is offering proud western Kentuckians three alternatives to get involved,” Mercer said. “They can be donors, lenders or co-signers of a loan. We’d rather have donations, but we’ll take loans.”

    Mercer said he expects to raise the $965,000 from 10 to 12 people in western Kentucky.

If so, those are some serious bluegrass fans.

Bill Monroe (1911-96), the “Father of Bluegrass,” was one of the most important American musicians of the century. The bluegrass he perfected was both emotionally potent – his “high lonesome” tenor keened mournfully of and over the rolling Kentucky hills – and technically dazzling. The breakneck speed and precision of his greatest band, the Bluegrass Boys with Lester Flatt on guitar and Earl Scruggs on banjo, stands up technically and imaginatively to the finest jazz of Armstrong, Parker and Coltrane.

The eighth child born to Buck and Melissa Monroe in northwestern Kentucky, Bill took up mandolin as a child because no one else in the family played it. After his father died, Bill lived with his uncle, Pendleton Vandiver (“Uncle Pen”), still remembered as one of the best fiddlers in the area. The pair played square dances together, where Bill perfected his sense of timing. Monroe also played with, and was influenced deeply by a black fiddler/guitarist, Arnold Schultz.

After stacking oil barrels in Indiana for several years, Bill and his brothers Birch and Charlie were hired as touring square dancers by Chicago’s WLS National Barn Dance in ’32, and were exposed to some of the hottest country string bands, including the Prairie Ramblers and McMichen’s Georgia Wildcats.

The Monroe Brothers (Charlie and Bill) began playing radio stations around the Carolinas and Georgia in ’34 where they were heard by A&R man Eli Oberstein, who then signed them to Victor. After recording sixty songs, including “What Would You Give In Exchange,” and enduring about the same number of fist fights, the Brothers broke up in ’38.

Bill convened the first Blue Grass Boys in ’39, which recorded with Frank Walker for Victor’s Bluebird imprint, including classics “Mule Skinner Blues” and Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 7.” After the war, Monroe and a new Blue Grass Boys were signed to Columbia by Art Satherley.

“Uncle Art” Satherley (1889-1986) was, with Ralph Peer and Frank Walker, among the pioneers of the country music industry. Born in Bristol, England, Satherley came to the U.S. in ’13 and worked for the Wisconsin Chair Company making Edison phonograph cabinets. The same company owned the Paramount race label in Chicago, where Satherley moved into promotion behind Blind Lemon Jefferson, Ma Rainey, and other blues greats.

By the late-20s he was with the ARC label where he produced Gene Autry, Bob Wills, Roy Acuff, Hank Penny, Hoosier Hot Shots, Floyd Tillman, and many others, moving to Columbia in ’38 when it merged with ARC. In ’45 he signed Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys.

After recording “Blue Grass Special” in ’45, the first version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in ’46, the band hit their rip-roaring peak with “Blue Grass Breakdown” in ’47, the most important instrumental in bluegrass history.

Flatt and Scruggs’ more-famous “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was clearly derived from this: Flatt with his signature bass-G runs at the end of each “verse,” Scruggs rolling his magical three-finger banjo style, while Monroe busted out tasty licks on the mandolin, all at a careening pace that cornered on two wheels threatening to tip at any moment. It never tipped and it’s never been topped.

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About Eric Olsen

  • The Theory

    all i know is that bluegrass is cool.

    and so are mandolins…

    peace.