Bluegrass Music in Western North Carolina by Wayne Erbsen
Western North Carolina has long been fertile ground for the growth of bluegrass music. In fact, no other region or state has contributed so much to its development.
For many people, the appeal of bluegrass music is that it is a relatively new form of music that sounds old. Most scholars agree that bluegrass first gained national attention when Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys appeared on the Grand Ole Opry in 1945. In addition to Bill Monroe himself, this legendary band consisted of Lester Flatt (guitar), Earl Scruggs (banjo), Chubby Wise (fiddle) and Cedric Rainwater (bass). The reason that bluegrass music sounds old is that it is a syntheses of many older styles of music.
The earliest settlers in western North Carolina were the Scotts-Irish. These early pioneers brought with them a wealth of both vocal and instrumental music traditions.
It was mainly the pioneer women who carried on the strong vocal traditions. Often barred by local custom from playing the more raucous instruments like the banjo or the fiddle, most women preferred to sing. More often than not, they sang the old ballads that had been passed down from mother to daughter for generations. Most of these ballads originated in the British Isles. They were carefully preserved by a culture that was bent on keeping in tact the cultural traditions of their ancestors. They preserved these ancient ballads so well, in fact, that during the years 1916-1918 English folksong collector Cecil Sharp came to western North Carolina for the sole purpose of collecting English ballads in their purest form, because in England these ballads had long been forgotten.
Ballad singing in western North Carolina had a strong impact on what later became known as bluegrass music. The subject matter of most of the ballads was either murder or death. This leant a somber tone to the music. Today, this is referred to as Bluegrass music’s "high lonesome sound." The manner in which the old ballads were sung also affected the singing styles of later bluegrass singers. The women who sang the old Scotts-Irish and English ballads normally sang with a tight voice that produced a high, shrill tone. In contrast, singers from African traditions sang with a looser voice that produced lower and more relaxed tones. Bill Monroe, who later became known as "The father of Bluegrass Music," is the perfect example of someone who sang with the tight vocal style of his Scotts-Irish ancestors. In his case, he was able to emulate the vocal styles of female ballad singers because he naturally had a high vocal range similar to many female singers.
While the women’s musical role in early pioneer life in western North Carolina was in singing the old ballads and songs, the men favored playing instruments. In particular, the fiddle was among the few treasured possessions that Scotts-Irish immigrants brought with them when they first came to America. Even more important than the instrument itself, these fiddlers brought a deep well of ancient melodies from Scotland and Ireland. Many of these fiddlers could fiddle for days without repeating a tune. This was handy because fiddlers often provided the only music for the many all-night dances that took place in backwoods communities. Because of their ability to provide much needed entertainment in rural communities, fiddlers were often held in higher esteem than doctors, lawyers or politicians. The dance tunes as played by Scotts-Irish fiddlers certainly had a strong impact on the music of this area.
Not lagging far behind the fiddle in providing music for rural communities was the banjo. The origins of the banjo can be traced back nearly 4500 years to ancient Egypt. From there it spread to the Middle East and to Africa. Slaves from West Africa eventually brought the instrument to the American south where it took hold and spread. It was in North Carolina where the banjo became a deeply-ingrained part of everyday life. Both blacks and whites frequently played the banjo along with the fiddle and later the guitar for rural dances and frolics.
In the mountains of western North Carolina, the banjo actually changed to adapt to local conditions. Mountain craftsmen built smaller and softer-sounding banjos using a groundhog hide for the "head" or "skin" of the banjo. These banjos were normally fretless and had wooden tuning pegs. In contrast to these homemade wooden instruments, factory-made banjos began to be produced as early as the 1870s in northeast cities. These banjos often featured mechanical tuning pegs, metal tone rings and brackets. Often produced in relatively large quantities, they were sold in Sears and Montgomery Ward mail order catalogs and soon found their way into the parlors and front porches of musicians in western North Carolina.
Besides the mail order catalogs, there were other modern influences that were bringing change to the mountains of western North Carolina. The first radio station in the area was WWNC, which began broadcasting in 1927. Its first location was in the Flat Iron Building in downtown Asheville. Up the marble steps trooped local musicians carrying banjos, fiddles, mandolins and guitars. Among the popular shows was "The Farm Hour." The radio made it possible for some dedicated musicians to "go professional" because it allowed them to advertise and promote show-dates in rural school houses. The school house shows became popular at the same time that rural roads were improved to accommodate the increasing number of cars and trucks hitting the roads. The bands that played these one-room school houses often mixed old-time fiddle tunes, banjo picking and harmony singing along with humor and skits from the minstrel and vaudeville show traditions.
In North Carolina, it seemed that practically everyone played string music. Thus it is not surprising that many bands that performed in western North Carolina consisted of many brother duets. Local musicians like Wiley and Zeke Morris, Wade and J.E. Mainer, Jack and Curly Shelton, Homer and Callahan and Bill and Earl Bolick are but few of the best-known brother acts from western North Carolina. These men established a strong tradition of instrumental virtuosity mixed with closely blended harmony singing.
In the mid 1930s, two brothers from Kentucky came to North Carolina to actively participate in the vibrant musical scene here. Calling themselves The Monroe Brothers, Bill and Charlie Monroe maintained a hectic schedule of performing nearly every night in venues that ranged from the proverbial one-room school houses to county fairs. To promote their shows, they performed on numerous radio stations including Asheville’s WWNC, Charlotte’s WBT and Raleigh’s WPTF. They were so busy performing and burning up the rubber on their Hudson Terraplane to get to their show-dates that they dismissed the idea of recording for RCA Victor records because they didn’t have time for it. They also didn’t realize the impact that being on a major record label could have on their performing career. At last, RCA Victor’s Eli Oberstein convinced them to record, which they did in a make-shift studio in 1936 in Charlotte, North Carolina. In a crowded warehouse rented by RCA records, the Monroe Brothers waxed ten sides, which included "Long Journey Home." On these first recordings, they established the style that would mark their entire recorded efforts on Victor’s Blue Bird records: tight vocal harmonies often played at lightening speeds with spell-binding instrumental virtuosity.
The professional musical partnership of the Monroe Brothers was not to last. The brothers’ notorious fiery tempers doomed them to go their separate ways in 1938. Both went on to form their own bands. Charlie moved to the Winston-Salem area and formed The Kentucky Partners. Bill Monroe first formed a band in Arkansas and then moved to Atlanta, Georgia. There he placed an ad in the local newspaper, looking for someone to sing old folk songs. Answering the ad was a young Cleo Davis, who played guitar and sang. Monroe hired Davis on the spot and spent several months teaching him his brother Charlie’s guitar runs and vocal stylings. By the time Monroe had finished training Davis, their sound was practically identical to that of the Monroe Brothers.
After unsuccessfully auditioning at several radio stations, Bill Monroe and Cleo Davis landed a radio program on Asheville’s WWNC radio. While Monroe and his wife lived out of a small travel trailer, Davis stayed nearby at a boarding house. Not satisfied with their current sound, Monroe began searching for other musicians to give his band a fuller sound. He eventually hired Art Wooten from Piney Creek, North Carolina to play fiddle, Amos Garren to play bass and Tommy "Snowball" Millard to do black-faced comedy and play jug. Seeking greener pastures, before long, the band moved to Greenville, South Carolina. Monroe tirelessly rehearsed the band in a converted gas station until Monroe thought them ready. In 1939, with the departure of Millard, the band successfully auditioned for the Grand Ole Opry. The rest, as they say, is "history." Monroe’s band was now known as "the Bluegrass Boys." Members came and went, but the sound was evolving to become what we now called Bluegrass Music.
For more information about bluegrass music, check out Wayne Erbsen's popular book, Rural Roots of Bluegrass, This book is richly illustrated with 107 vintage photos and includes history, lyrics to 94 songs, musical notation, chords, playing tips, and historical sources for each song. Includes profiles on the Bill Clifton, Bill Monroe, the Blue Sky Boys, Bradley Kincaid, the Callahan Brothers, Carolina Tar Heels, the Carter Family, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, the Coon Creek Girls, Earl Scruggs, Eck Robertson, Ernest V. "Pop" Stoneman, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, Fiddlin’ John Carson, G. B. Grayson & Henry Whitter, Jimmie Rodgers, Karl and Harty, the Lilly Brothers, Monroe Brothers, the Morris Brothers, Riley Puckett, Samantha Bumgarner, Vernon Dalhart, Snuffy Jenkins and Wade & J. E. Mainer. 6" x 9", 180 pages.