Nobody would have thought this big-city Yankee would have found a home in the South. He was an Italian immigrant, a fixture of high culture. He was familiar with Beethoven and Vivaldi, and would have been at home in a classical music hall or the parlor of a well-to-do family. His name was synonymous with sophistication—shopgirls in big cities claimed to know him well so others would think them society ladies. Yet this city slicker was adopted by the South, and he’s traded Beethoven for bluegrass and New York parlors for Tennessee barn dances. I’m talking, of course, about the mandolin.
The mandolin originated in Italy in the 1700’s, and was used by several classical composers. It crossed over to America with Italian immigrants in the mid-1800’s, and became a status symbol in the big cities of the Northeast, as members of the leisured classes strummed parlor songs or joined mandolin clubs. But the mandolin became permanently adopted by the South when a Kentuckian named Bill Monroe picked up a mandolin and started a new chapter in American music.
Monroe took the mandolin, formerly a rhythm instrument, and brought it to the forefront. His style of playing was faster and harder-driving than previous folk music. With his band, The Bluegrass Boys, he created a new style of music. A mix of old-time string bands, country, gospel blues, and a little jazz, bluegrass music was played with a sense of urgency and competition, and focused equally on technical skill as on emotion.
Moving from earlier country artists, like Uncle Dave Macon or Jimmie Rodgers, to the Bluegrass Boys is like the transition from silent movies to talkies. Although Monroe was a soft-spoken man who described himself as “a farmer with a mandolin and a high tenor voice,” his pioneering mandolin work set the template for all future bluegrass mandolin playing, and made him an American music legend.
Along with inventing bluegrass, Monroe’s influence has been felt by artists ranging from Elvis Presley, whose upbeat, rockabilly cover of Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” impressed Monroe, to Bob Dylan, who said of Monroe’s music, “That’s what America’s all about to me.” Monroe was a purist who strictly played bluegrass, and he sometimes looked down on artists who mixed bluegrass with other styles. Nevertheless, he is responsible for the adoption of the mandolin into the family of Southern music.
One of the greatest mandolin players to follow in Monroe’s footsteps is Ricky Skaggs. Skaggs played onstage with Bill Monroe at the age of six when Monroe performed in Skaggs’s hometown, and he has been carrying on the mandolin legacy ever since. When Skaggs won a Grammy for his rendition of Monroe’s “Wheel Hoss,” he gave the Grammy to Monroe. Although Skaggs had a successful stint as a mainstream country artist in the ’80’s, he always kept a bluegrass element in his playing and finally returned to his bluegrass roots with his band, Kentucky Thunder, in the late ’90s.
Skaggs has released two tributes to Monroe, Big Mon: A Tribute to Bill Monroe and Honoring the Fathers of Bluegrass: Tribute to 1946 and 1947, and many albums of his own material. His style builds on the fast pace of Monroe and makes it even faster—the back cover of his album History of the Future warns “listening to this CD while operating a vehicle could result in a speeding violation.” Although he respectfully carries on the Monroe tradition, Skaggs has also experimented more than Monroe and has recorded several collaborations with pianist Bruce Hornsby.
Among young mandolin players, Chris Thile takes the center stage. Like Skaggs, Thile met Monroe as a child, who listened to him play the mandolin and gave the young Thile a quarter. In the early 2000’s, Thile played mandolin for Nickel Creek, a trio of young bluegrass players who gained some mainstream success. While it would have been easy to peg the young Thile as the bluegrass equivalent of a manufactured teen pop star, he has since proved that he is no lightweight. His band, the Punch Brothers, uses traditional bluegrass instrumentation but includes avant-garde techniques such as dissonance, unusual time signatures, and complex song structures. Thile is equally at home jamming with Yo-Yo Ma as with Ricky Skaggs and can play anything from traditional bluegrass to Bach Sonatas. In his music, the mandolin stays in touch with its classical and bluegrass roots while reaching towards new sonic territory.
Catch Chris Thile on the Mandolin Here
View More Mandolin Photos Here