Roll on buddy: James Monroe preserves father's legend while creating his own

Friday, February 6, 2004


James Monroe, son of the late Bill Monroe, will headline the Free State Music Festival this weekend.

Being the offspring of a musical legend can be either a blessing or a curse. Either you find your own voice and risk alienating your core audience (ex: Hank Williams III), or you waste away in musical purgatory fanning the flames of your elders' success (ex: Dweezil Zappa, Julian Lennon, Frank Sinatra Jr.).

James Monroe, the only son of bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, has managed to carve a career path that pays respect to his father's accomplishments but focuses largely on his own unique talents.

Though he got his professional start as the guitarist for Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys (1964-1971), James said goodbye to the world's greatest bluegrass band in 1971 to focus on his own songwriting ambitions.

Since then, James Monroe and the Midnight Ramblers have been releasing records and touring the country with songs like "Tennessee Sunday," "Snowing in Dixie" and "Midnight Blues." The band is a veteran of the festival circuit, having toured with legends like Lester Flatt, Jim and Jesse McReynolds and Carter Stanley.

With Bill Monroe's passing in 1996, James has become the closest living link to the man who invented bluegrass. In addition to recording and performing, James oversees Monroe Talent Enterprises and handles all the publishing rights to Bill Monroe's songs. He also coordinates The Bill Monroe Memorial Day Weekend Bluegrass Festival, a yearly event held in Bill's birthplace of Rosine, Kentucky.

Now 62, James Monroe plays nearly 40 gigs a year and works tirelessly to preserve his father's legacy. To that end, he recently completed a gospel song titled "Glorybound Train" that his father had written a verse for during his final years. The song is the only one ever attributed to "Bill and James Monroe."

Past Event

Free State Music Festival

  • Friday, February 6, 2004, midnight
  • Holiday Inn Lawrence, 200 McDonald Drive, Lawrence
  • All ages / $10 - $25

More talked with James from his home in Hendersonville, Tenn. about his father, his career and why uber-patriot country star Toby Keith is the real deal. :: Do you think Bill Monroe's legacy has continued to grow since his death?

James Monroe :: I think when he did pass away in '96 the whole world really took note of him then. The whole world realized what a powerful musician he really truly was, because he was more than that -- he was legendary. He could write his own material, sing his own material and play his own material. People that can do that they call a triple threat. You don't see a man that creates his own style of music; he's the only one I've ever heard of that did that.

What are your particular leanings when it comes to bluegrass verses country; old-style verses new-style. Where do you see yourself in the whole picture?


James Monroe, right, shares a stage with his legendary father Bill Monroe, circa the 1970s.

Well, I'm bluegrass, but I love ballad songs. I sing a lot of ballads and some of those are slower songs and some of them are storytelling songs -- that's the kind of songs that I like.

[...] I still drive hard when it comes to "Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms" or "Train 45." I like to really drive the music hard and then I'll slow it down and do some ballads and put a little blues into it too ... I never copied my Dad, but of course I've got a Monroe voice -- that's just there.

When do you think interest in your music peaked?

Well, we still have great crowds. It seems like people now are watching me pretty close because they know that I'm the last Monroe going on with this music. I'll do two or three of my Dad's songs in my show just as a tribute to him, but I do James Monroe stuff 'cause I always have done that and that's what I'll go out doing.

When you're out on the road going town-to-town, what kind of traditions do you have?

Well, we have a nice bus we travel in. That's important to have that nowadays. If we stay more than one day somewhere we check into motels and try to find a good, clean place to eat at. They're not always truck stops anymore -- you want to try to find something like a Cracker Barrel if you can.

How much do you keep up with modern pop country?

I don't too much; I'm not too much into the new country, to be honest with you. I like some of the entertainers -- Toby Keith I think is good.

With artists like Toby Keith one of the popular things now seems to be to write songs about politics and the war. How do you feel about that?

If somebody comes out with a song just to ride that wave because there's a war going on, I don't like that. But if somebody writes something from the heart like Alan Jackson did or Toby Keith did ... I think that's a great tribute. I think Toby's for real.

I read on a website of yours that you had done an interview for a documentary on Elvis recently. Could you tell me a little bit about your experiences with Elvis?

I never met the man, but I've heard my Dad talk about him and from what I understood about Elvis I just thought he was a real good country fellow. He had good manners and I think he tried to do a lot of things the right way. His parents raised him up the right way I think, and my Dad said he thought he was a fine, young man when he met him. He apologized to Dad for singing "Blue Moon of Kentucky" the way that he did and my father said, 'Well, that's OK if that helps your career because that's your kind of music.'"

What would you want younger generations to know about your father?

He was an honest man and he was a creative person. His mind never did quit being creative; he did that right up 'til the end. He had a great will power and he would talk to you the same way he would to the President of the United States because that's just the kind of man that he was ... He told President Reagan one time, 'Now, you know that I'm a Democrat, but I came up here to perform for you,' and President Reagan said, 'I know that Bill, but I wanted you here anyway because we love your music.'