It was a cold February day in 1950, and at two o’clock that afternoon Grand Ole Opry star Bill Monroe was driving down to the Tulane Hotel, on Church Street in downtown Nashville. He was on his way to the Castle studios, a remodeled dining room in the hotel that had become Nashville’s first real recording studio; there he would meet Paul Cohen, the A&R man for his new record label, Decca. In fact, Monroe’s very first session for Decca was set for 2:30 that afternoon, with a second threehour session scheduled for 7:30 that night.
Monroe had seven songs ready, but even then he knew it would be a long day: He had a new, young band, most of whom had never recorded before, and a new producer to break in as well. And to top it all off, Monroe was in a crisis of sorts in his own career: Though his distinctive music was starting to take off, it was also threatening to get away from him, as young bands around the South began copying the “high lonesome sound.” His new bosses at Decca seemed nervous about Monroe tying himself too much to this sound, and had been making noises about a more mainstream country style.
On that day Monroe was thirty-nine years old, and had been recording for some fourteen years—first with his brother Charlie on the old Bluebird label before World War II, then with his own bands for Bluebird, and, since 1945, for Columbia. Both labels had brought him major successes: “What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul?” with his brother on Bluebird; “Orange Blossom Special” and “In the Pines” with his prewar band for Bluebird; and “Kentucky Waltz,” “Footprints in the Snow” and “Little Community Church” for Columbia. Since September 1946 his recordings had included the singing and guitar of Lester Flatt and the revolutionary banjo sounds of Earl Scruggs.
He had won national fame in the early 1940s by landing himself and his Blue Grass Boys a spot on the NBC network portion of the Grand Ole Opry, and the incredible popularity and influence of band members Flatt and Scruggs had caused crowds at the old Ryman to shake the place with their screams and whistles. Monroe was popular enough to get his own tent show when he went on Opry tours, and for a time he even carried with him an amateur baseball team. By the end of the decade, though, things were taking a different turn.
For various reasons—some personal, some professional—both Flatt and Scruggs decided to leave the band in early 1948, and afterward decided to start their own band. “Bill might have always had the feeling that we had planned it,” Flatt explained years later, “but actually we hadn’t.” Monroe felt he had helped mold the two into the stars they were, and did not take kindly to their departure; he told them there was no way they could make it on their own. The bitterness was strong, and remained for years; it even extended to Monroe’s trying to keep them off the Opry in the early 1950s.
As they started their new career in east Tennessee, Flatt and Scruggs were careful not to use the word “bluegrass” to describe their music—since it was part of the actual band name used by Monroe, the Blue Grass (written as two words) Boys. But inadvertently their fans conspired against them; not wanting to anger Lester and Earl by mentioning Monroe by name, fans started asking for the “old Blue Grass songs” they had done in the 1940s. The name stuck, and soon other people were using the name of Monroe’s band as a generic term to describe the music played in that style. Monroe was also finding out that fame bred imitation.
Over in Bristol—the same place Flatt and Scruggs would go—in the late 1940s was another band called the Stanley Brothers who were becoming adept at copying Monroe’s sound. Mac Wiseman, who had worked with Monroe in 1949, recalled: “When the Stanley Brothers first started, whatever Bill did Saturday night on the Opry, they did next week on the Bristol program that they were on. . . . Well, Bill used to see red. He used to hate the word Stanley Brothers.” The Stanleys weren’t really trying to rip off Monroe—they simply loved his music, and the way he did it. “It wasn’t that they were out to steal corn out of his corn crib,” says Wiseman. But things came to a head in September 1948, when the Stanleys did their cover of Monroe’s famous racehorse song, “Molly and Tenbrooks,” and released it on the small independent label called Rich-R-Tone.
The problem was that Monroe had not yet released his own record of the song—Columbia had held it back during the 1948 recording ban. To make matters worse, Monroe then learned that his own record company, Columbia, had signed the upstart Stanleys to a contract in March 1949, and had rushed them into the studio before scheduling any sessions with him. And worse yet, one of the first Columbia releases by the Stanleys (June 1949) was a song called “Let Me Be Your Friend,” which bore a close resemblance to Monroe’s most recent Columbia release,
“It’s a Dark Road to Travel”—though it gave composer credits to Carter Stanley. Monroe was understandably furious, and that fall decided to sever ties with Columbia. (He was even angrier with them the following fall, when they signed up his old sidemen Flatt and Scruggs.) But Monroe was far from feeling washed up on that February day as he walked into the Tulane Hotel. He had always responded well to a challenge, and a couple of upstart bands trying to make it by playing what he considered “his” music weren’t about to intimidate him. Two of his new musicians were singer-guitarist Jimmy Martin and fiddler Vassar Clements. Martin, who would later win fame on his own with songs like “Widow Maker,” was from Sneedville, Tennessee, and was working as a painter when Monroe found him. “He had a wonderful voice that would really fit with mine,” Monroe recalled later, in a memorable understatement.
Young Vassar Clements was also destined for bigger things—the 1974 album Hillbilly Jazz would help redefine the role of the fiddle in country and bluegrass music. Like Chubby Wise, Vassar was from Florida, and in fact had met Monroe through Chubby; after auditioning with “Orange Blossom Special,” Vassar was hired by Monroe to replace Chubby. “We had a number called ‘The New Muleskinner Blues,’” recalls Monroe. “Well, Vassar was powerful on that. He put some new notes in it that was fine, that every fiddler went searching for.” Monroe especially liked Vassar’s ability to play the blues; “there’s fiddlers that could beat Vassar on ‘Sally Gooden’ or old-time fiddle numbers, but Vassar would beat ’em on a number like the ‘Mule Skinner’—they wouldn’t touch him on that.” In fact, “New Muleskinner Blues” was one of the songs cut that February afternoon, and one that would become one of Monroe’s bestknown Decca sides.
It was a remake of the old Jimmie Rodgers song Monroe had first cut back in 1940 for Victor—and the first song he had sung on the Opry. “We don’t do it the way Jimmie Rodgers sung it,” Monroe notes. “It’s speeded up.” Monroe also brought to the session three new original songs, “My Little Georgia Rose,” “Memories of You,” and “I’m on My Way to the Old Home.” All three were autobiographical—almost confessional—in nature; in “I’m on My Way to the Old Home” Monroe was especially evocative at calling up the scenes of his youth in Rosine, with the echoes of the foxhounds running at night. Monroe’s mother had died in 1921, when he was ten; his father (who had been fifty-four when Bill was born) had died in 1927,
When Bill was sixteen. Now, as he entered his forties himself, Monroe found himself thinking more about his childhood and his old home place. That night, when the band reassembled for the second session, Monroe brought out two songs associated with his fellow Opry singer Hank Williams. Banjoist Rudy Lyle recalled that during this time “Hank Williams used to prank with us a lot, especially at the Friday Night Frolic up at old WSM on Seventh Avenue. . . . He used to always kid Bill about where he got his banjo players.” A few weeks before, Williams had given Monroe a song he had written called “Alabama Waltz.” It was designed to take advantage of the fad for state-named waltzes—Monroe had done “The Kentucky Waltz,” and everyone was cutting “The Tennessee Waltz.”
Monroe also brought out “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome,” which, though credited on the label to “James B. Smith,” was really the joint production of Monroe and Hank Williams. On tour with Williams, Monroe had been fooling around with the melody on his mandolin backstage, and Williams overheard him; he liked the tune, and soon set words to it. For months the pair had sung the song backstage for their own amusement, and Monroe thought it was worth preserving on disc—even though Williams’s MGM contract forbade him to sing on the session. Cohen agreed. By 10:30 that night, the session was over, and Paul Cohen declared that the new Decca artist was on his way. Monroe hoped so too.
Unlike Monroe’s A&R man at Columbia, the veteran Art Satherley, who tended to let Monroe go his own way, Paul Cohen was younger, more aggressive, and was determined to make Nashville into Decca’s country and western center. He was also interested in creating sales, and was disappointed when Monroe’s first Decca release, “New Muleskinner” and “My Little Georgia Rose,” rushed out in March, fell with a thud; it failed to dent the charts, and was not even noted in Billboard. Cohen decided to find more commercial material. One number was suggested to him by Eli Oberstein, the former Bluebird executive who had been A&R man for the Monroe Brothers back in the 1930s. Oberstein had released it on his own independent Hit label: a song called “The Old Fiddler,” written and sung by an Arkansas composer and singer named Hugh Ashley.
Ashley had written the song to an old fiddle tune played by a local character named Frank Watkins (though the old fiddler referred to in the lyric is called “Uncle Ben”). Cohen got the song to Monroe, persuaded him to record it at his very next session (April 8, 1950), and rushed it into release as his second single. Though Billboard noticed this one in its new release column, it too sank like a stone—even with Williams’s “Alabama Waltz” on the flip side. “The Old Fiddler” did have an unexpected effect, though. Six months later, at the very next session, Monroe presented Cohen with his own version of a song about an old-time fiddler—not Uncle Ben, but “Uncle Pen.” As Monroe explained years later: “My uncle, Pen Vandiver, was one of Kentucky’s old-time fiddlers, and he had the best shuffle with a bow that I’d ever seen, and kept the best time. That’s one reason people asked him to play for the dances around Rosine. . . .
My last years in Kentucky were spent with him.” Monroe had gone to live with Pen Vandiver when his father died, and the teenager spent countless hours traveling with him to square dances and learning the rudiments of his music. Vandiver died in 1932, and during this “confessional” period, Monroe began to write a song about him. Hugh Ashley always assumed that “The Old Fiddler” had inspired Monroe to write his own song about a fiddler, and this seems still likely, though Monroe himself has denied it. Rudy Lyle recalls that Monroe wrote the song “in the back seat of the car up on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on the way to Rising Sun, Maryland.” Fiddler Merle “Red” Taylor, who later worked with Monroe, felt that he had come up with the fiddle part to the song after Monroe had sung some of the lyrics to him one night in a hotel room.
Singer-guitarist Jimmy Martin, in his twenties at the time, also recalls helping Monroe work on the song “while riding on the bus and in little schoolhouse rooms.” (Taylor played the fiddle on the original recording of the piece, done in October 1950, and Martin and banjoist Rudy Lyle were also on the session.) Cohen saw at once that this was a much better song than “The Old Fiddler,” and rushed it out by Christmas 1950. Though it never reached the charts, it sold well, was played everywhere, and soon was on its way to becoming a country standard. (Porter Wagoner and Ricky Skaggs would each later do remakes of it.) Even so, Cohen and Decca remained dubious about the “old-time” sound of Monroe’s all-acoustic Blue Grass Boys, and decided to try with Monroe what they had done with most of their other Nashville singers: have them record not with their own bands, but with a special team of crack studio men.
An opportunity to try the plan came sooner than they expected. In March 1951, Cohen got wind that Eddy Arnold had recorded a version of Monroe’s old 1946 hit, “Kentucky Waltz,” and decided to rush Monroe back into the studio to do a new cover of his own song. The trouble was that Monroe was on tour, and to fly the whole band back to Nashville was more than the company would pay. Finally Monroe himself was flown back and put in the studio with some of Nashville’s best session men: electric guitar player Grady Martin, fiddler Tommy Jackson, even Farris Coursey on drums. On “Kentucky Waltz” Owen Bradley even played a skating-rink organ—on others a romping honky-tonk piano. One track from the session, a souped-up version of “The Prisoner’s Song,” featured Grady Martin’s electric guitar to the point where the arrangement approached rockabilly. The session marked the first time Monroe had recorded with electric instruments and drums; not wanting to make waves with his new producer, he cooperated.
Cohen liked the sound, and in April he scheduled more sessions under the new format. This time he let Monroe use his regular banjo player, Rudy Lyle, but once again added a drummer, an electric guitarist, and bass player Ernie Newton. Oddly, most of the cuts were versions of Jimmie Rodgers songs, cut to cover Columbia’s set of Rodgers songs done by Lefty Frizzell. This time, Decca realized the experiment wasn’t working. Owen Bradley, who was now Cohen’s assistant and actually overseeing many of the sessions, recalled how much Monroe himself disliked these arrangements; many of the cuts were not even issued at the time.
Decca’s marketing people had even tried advertising some of the sides—such as “Lonesome Truck Drivers’ Blues,” a shameless cover of Bob Newman’s King hit—in Billboard with no reference at all to “the Blue Grass Boys.” But trying to separate Monroe from his “sound” or band merely irritated his old fans, and won no new ones. By the end of 1951, Decca had given up, and Monroe himself had seen the danger of trying to modernize his style. A story Owen Bradley tells reflects just how much Decca gave in. At one session later that year, scheduled for 8:30 in the morning—an ungodly hour for most, but one that didn’t bother Monroe in the slightest—Bradley assigned an assistant just down from New York to oversee things. About noon Bradley got a call from the new man; he’d been in the studio an hour with Monroe, and had finished only one song. “And I can’t understand a word he says,” he concluded. Bradley told him not to worry—let Monroe do what he wants, and when he feels the take is right, go on to the next one. In other words, let Monroe be Monroe. The New Yorker finally agreed, and the session concluded. With it came a production style that would endure for the next four decades and beyond, and that would see both Decca (now MCA) and Monroe through one of the longest artist-company relationships in country music history. For Monroe, it was an important victory, as well as a vital watershed in his own career. He had weathered a serious crisis, and was now ready to embark on the most productive decade of his career.