The Big Bang Theory of Bluegrass

By Wayne Erbsen

If the “big bang theory” helps to explain the origin of the universe, perhaps “the big bang theory of bluegrass” will shed some light on the origin of the bluegrass music universe.

Art Wooten, Bill Monroe, Cleo Davis, Amos Garen

There are two schools of thought as to the origins of bluegrass music. One has Bill Monroe singlehandedly inventing bluegrass music around 1945. The other takes a more evolutionary approach, with a number of musicians and bands contributing to the sound we now call “bluegrass.” In particular, this approach points to Wade and JE Mainer’s Mountaineers as the first band that had all the ingredients of bluegrass music going back at least to 1935. For this article, let’s put aside the evolutionary argument, and concentrate on the theory that Bill Monroe invented bluegrass.

It is commonly known that Bill and Charlie, the Monroe Brothers, had a contentious and turbulent relationship. Perhaps Charlie said it best, “We were hot-headed and mean as snakes.” In early 1938, they went their separate ways. To replace Bill, Charlie hired Zeke Morris to play mandolin and sing tenor. Interestingly enough, Zeke had been a mainstay of Mainer’s Mountaineers.

Bill Monroe, on the other hand, was looking for a lead singer and guitar player to replace his brother Charlie. To accomplish his goal, Bill placed a small ad in the Atlanta, Georgia, newspaper looking for someone who played guitar and sang old-time songs. Among the musicians who showed up at Bill’s small travel trailer to audition was a nervous young man named Cleo Davis. Bill hired him on the spot because Bill’s wife, Carolyn, reinforced Bill’s opinion that Davis’ voice sounded almost exactly like that of brother Charlie Monroe.

Cleo Davis & Bill Monroe

It is my contention that the short audition of Cleo Davis in Bill’s small trailer in 1938 is the big bang of bluegrass. It is when Bill hired the first of a long line of sidemen who would make up Bill’s legendary band, The Blue Grass Boys. The rest, my friends, is history.

Let me tell you how I became involved in all this. In late 1981, I received a personal letter from Cleo Davis, who by then was calling himself JC Davis. He had read an article I had written for Bluegrass Unlimited magazine on Wiley and Zeke, the Morris Brothers. Cleo, or JC, contacted me in an effort to reestablish contact with the Morris Brothers, whom he had not seen since that late 1930s. In addition to providing him with contact information to get in touch with the Morris Brothers, I asked if I could interview him for another article in Bluegrass Unlimited. He readily agreed and seemed anxious to tell his story.

At the time he was living in Lakeland, Florida, and I made my home near Asheville, North Carolina. Because of the difficulty of getting together, I asked him if I could send him some questions via letter, and if he could record his answers on a cassette tape. He quickly consented to this somewhat unorthodox interview method. Many letters and cassette tapes went back and forth, and my article finally appeared in Bluegrass Unlimited in February 1982. As far as I know, I was the only one to interview Cleo (JC) Davis about his role in the origins of Bill’s band, the Bluegrass Boys. Unfortunately, he passed away a short time later.

Thanks to the wonders of computers, you can actually listen to those tapes I made by going to Simply type in “Cleo Davis,” and you’re good to go.  The entire article can be found here. This information can also be found in my book, The Rural Roots of Bluegrass.


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Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really, about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written more than 30 songbooks and instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin.

9 thoughts on “The Big Bang Theory of Bluegrass

  1. hi wayne, interesting article about bluegrass. I think my father had a little to do with bluegrass. he recorded at the Bristol sessions 10/25/27, with the coon hunters. I have a cd of the Bristol sessions, in the linear notes it says bill Monroe incorporated my dads song your blue eyes run me crazy. into bluegrass music. I have a lot of old pictures of the coon hunters that the Bristol museum would like to have. my dad’s name was listed wrong in most articles, and never got the credit he deserved. they have started changing this, now. after articles in golden seal and the old time herald. soon I will give them my pictures. my dad had written names of other musicians on the back of one of the pictures I have. that is how they got their names. I thought you might be interested in this. I enjoy your work, thank you, darel meadows

    1. I love your music

      1. Thanks so much, Darel!

    2. wow! That’s interesting, Darel. I’d love to have copies of those photos for my books and articles. Any chance you can send me copies? My email is Of course I’ll give credit when I use them. Thanks so much!

  2. Hi Wayne,
    Charlie Poole in the late 20’s used twin fiddles and banjo lead that was a blueprint that followed into bluegrass so even though Bill Monroe is considered the father, there were previous cosmic occurrences.

    1. Hi Brian. Great to hear from you. Yes, Charlie Poole was definitely at the roots of bluegrass music. He did not, to my knowledge, use twin fiddles. One fiddle was enough for Charlie.

  3. Gentlemen, very interesting conversations. My Great (x3) Grandpop is Ovid Riggle Mooney (a.ka. Regal Mooney) and was wondering if there is anyway I could exchange some information for any copies of photos of Ovid either of you may have? My Uncle Tommy before passing had given me a book he authored detailing Ovid’s life (as well as the entire family). There is an interesting mention that the band had played often for the Hatfield family. In discussions with my grandma she had confirmed that this was the infamous Hatfield’s whom had a disagreement with the McCoys… it would have been after the fact of the historical dispute but very interesting. Regardless, would enjoy hearing back if you have time. I have also located a family member of Boyles who is also seeking additional information. Thanks for your time and blog!!

    1. Hi Gregory. Great to hear from you. I’m afraid I’m not familiar with your Grandpop. Did he play with anyone whose name I might recognize? I’ll try to help you any way I can but I doubt I have a photo of Mooney. Thanks, Wayne Erbsen

  4. Good afternoon Wayne – sorry for late response (I didn’t get an advisory of your reply*). I appreciate you responding. Regardless, Ovid Riggle Mooney played with West Virginia Coon Hunters (Greasy String & Your Blue Eyes Run) – and was corrected by my Ma- Granpop x2 not x3 ( haha trying to reduce my own age!) any info would be appreciated- thx again greg

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