Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys on the Appalachian Theatre Stage, 1941

Dr. Gary Boye

It was Tuesday, May 20, 1941. The Watauga Democrat from the previous week carried news of the war in Europe a world away from the quiet town of Boone. France was occupied and German forces were massing on the Russian border, but the Democrat focused instead on minor allied good news: the Royal Air Force was bombing the Germans in occupied France and Belgium, as well as several industrial cities inside Germany itself. The capture of Nazi Rudolf Hess and his odd and apparently unsponsored peace mission to Britain garnered a few notes on the front page as well. Although Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II was still more than six months away, the draft had begun the previous fall, and the country was preparing for war. Some men waited for the call, while others volunteered. Local civic leaders organized a "rousing send-off" for the latest Watauga County quota of six draftees and four volunteers.

Newspapers and the Selective Service might have been bringing the war to Boone, but around town that week the big news was the annual Dollar Days, a week-long sales event at local stores. At Belk's you could buy a nice pair of Lee overalls for $1.29 in the basement or head upstairs for Turkish towels at five cents a piece or an alarm clock for a dollar. Qualls Furniture offered a dollar off all dressers; at Farmer's Hardware, that same dollar could buy 25 pounds of nails or twelve trout flies. At the Appalachian Theatre, the 20 cents would purchase a ticket to a matinee show or 33 cents for an evening show. Films that week included the Westerns The Lady from Cheyenne (1941) with Loretta Young and The Range Busters (1940) with Ray "Crash" Corrigan. The Saturday serial was Adventures of Red Ryder (1940) with Red Barry. Newsreels were, no doubt, a further reminder of the growing war clouds in Europe. But by Tuesday the mood was lighter: the matinee and evening show featured the film, Grand Ole Opry (1940), Hollywood's fictional account of the Nashville radio show, and a live performance by a current member of that show: Bill Monroe.

Locals would have known all about Bill from radio—he had been a star of the Opry since October 1939—or from his records. In addition, he and his brother Charlie had played the courthouse in Boone just a few years before in March 1936. The duo was so well liked that they invited them back for another show that Fourth of July. The Monroe Brothers had split up and formed their own bands by 1939, both choosing band names that reflected their native Kentucky.

William Smith Monroe (1911-1996)

The youngest of eight children, Bill Monroe was born near Rosine, Kentucky, on September 13, 1911. Older brothers Charlie and Birch played the guitar and fiddle, respectively, so Bill took up the smaller mandolin to join his family's informal string band. Although tall and strapping like his brothers, Bill was shy and reserved, in large part because of his being cross-eyed. Some say his appearance, if not his actual ability to see, was improved by an operation in the early 1930s before going on stage with his brother Charlie in 1933. But eyesight would always be a problem for Bill—in later years he would choose to go without glasses so often that people would think he was ignoring them or was unfriendly. In fact, he just couldn't see them. He rarely appeared on stage or in photos with the glasses he really needed to function.

Joining the many brother duets of the time, Bill sang high harmony to his brother's baritone and played a clean, searing mandolin that immediately set them apart from other mandolin-guitar duos. From 1934 to 1938, the Monroe Brothers were one of the most popular acts in the burgeoning field of what was becoming known as Country or Country and Western music. Charlie and Bill were stationed primarily from the WLS Barn Dance radio program in Chicago, but played throughout the South and Midwest.

By the late 1930s, the brother duet fad was on the wane, and the Monroes, beginning to fight verbally and physically as to exactly who was in charge, went their separate ways in June 1938. Both immediately updated their styles by forming a string band. Charlie's Kentucky Partners were enormously popular, playing throughout the South and selling large amounts of records. Bill's new band, on the other hand, would change country music history.

From Blue Grass Boys to Bluegrass Music

When Bill Monroe took out an ad in an Atlanta newspaper in 1939 to find members for his new band, there was no indication that he was looking for anything other than the typical "hillbilly" band common in that era. In fact, both brothers seemed to be recreating bands with a core of the same duet harmony sound that they had left: Bill looking for someone who could sing lead and play guitar, Charlie for another high harmony singer and mandolin player. Bill added several musicians through 1939 and 1940, but by 1941, Bill's band at the Appalachian Theatre would have included Art Wooten (1906-1986), a fiddler from nearby Sparta, NC, guitarist Clyde Moody (1915-1989), a smooth lead singer and guitarist from Cherokee, NC, and Bill "Cousin Wilbur" Wesbrooks (1911-1984) playing the upright bass and adding some comic relief.

While this band, the Blue Grass Boys, was later credited with a new type of string band playing that was called "bluegrass music," there is general disagreement as to exactly when this new style is evident. Monroe insisted—not without his own self-interest at heart—that the sound was born when he stepped onto the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in October of 1939 with his first band. Through the years, many others have come to regard the "classic" band formed in 1945, four years after his first appearance at the Appalachian, as the real birth of bluegrass. That band included North Carolinian Earl Scruggs and a driving, syncopated banjo style without which bluegrass today is almost unthinkable.

So the Blue Grass Boys that played the AT in May 1941 may not have been quite the bluegrass band that most fans think of at present, yet it was still a band with most of the essential elements of the style. No doubt Bill would have sung his hit, "Muleskinner Blues," a Jimmie Rodgers song, as mentioned in the ad in the Watauga Democrat (5/15/1941, p.

Bill Monroe.jpg

Bill switched off to the guitar for this particular song. His bluesy intro and acrobatic high yodeling can be best heard on the 1940 recording, but there are many later versions. One characteristic of Monroe's music and bluegrass in general is evident immediately: a driving rhythm, often compared to a train. Even without the banjo, Monroe's band had that drive.

Art Wooten's fiddling can be heard especially on the 1941 recordings of "Orange Blossom Special" and "Back Up and Push," instrumental numbers the band would have likely played that night. Wooten also performed as a "one man band" on a contraption that combined an organ, guitar, and banjo. According to band member Cleo Davis, who played guitar for Monroe before Clyde Moody joined: "He picked it with one foot and chorded with the other while, at the same time, playing the fiddle." (Tom Ewing, The Bill Monroe Reader, p. 132). He also played fiddle and harmonica at the same time, with a holder around his neck. Versatility was always a plus for a Blue Grass Boy, and the Sparta connection would have added to the applause in the theater that evening.

Guitarist Clyde Moody can be heard on the 1940 recording of "Six White Horses," which demonstrates the important mixture of blues added to what would become the bluegrass style. And when Bill played guitar for "Muleskinner Blues," Clyde switched off to mandolin, becoming one of the very few Blue Grass Boys to play mandolin on stage—obviously, that instrument was Bill's territory. Moody chopped chords in rhythm and stayed safely in the background.

It wouldn't have been all blues and fast breakdowns that night on the Appalachian stage 78 years ago, however. Nearly every concert Bill Monroe did included at least a few gospel tunes, often in a vocal quartet with pared down instrumentation of just a guitar (often played by Monroe himself) or guitar and mandolin. Songs such as "Crying Holy Unto the Lord" and "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)" would have been possibilities for that night. Finally, although banjoist Dave "Stringbean" Akeman recorded with Bill around this time, there is no evidence he appeared on stage for that particular show. It appears to have been only a quartet of mandolin, guitar, fiddle, and string bass.

The Hatch Show Print files indicate an incredibly busy spring for the Blue Grass Boys that year, beginning in Alabama and circling around through Tennessee and Virginia and down into North Carolina, returning to Nashville for the Saturday radio show. The week they played Boone included shows at the Liberty Theatre in North Wilkesboro on Monday, the Appalachian in Boone on Tuesday, the Haysi Theatre in Haysi, Virginia near the Kentucky line on Wednesday, the Palace Theatre in Evarts, Kentucky on Thursday, and going all the way back down to Hickory, North Carolina to play the St. Stephens School on Friday night before heading back to Nashville to play the Opry on live, coast-to-coast radio Saturday night. This is nearly an 800-mile trip on modern roads, but it was just another week in the lives of hard-working musicians in 1941. A few years later, Bill sang of this grueling schedule in his classic "Heavy Traffic Ahead" (1949), which includes a verse about returning to the Opry:

We do our work with a good will

On Friday night we head for Nashville

Heavy traffic ahead, heavy traffic ahead

We got to ramble, ramble, there's heavy traffic ahead

By 1949 the classic band with Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt had come together for nearly three years and disbanded, forever changing the Blue Grass Boys' sound. So, a very different group of Blue Grass Boys returned to the Appalachian Theatre in 1952 for Monroe's next show in Boone. I'll save that story for a future post.