The three founding acts of bluegrass music – Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers – all put in significant time in Raleigh, gaining exposure on the regional radio powerhouse WPTF-AM and making fans who would follow them for decades.
Monroe, the patriarch of the virtuosic, lonesome acoustic style that’s at the center of this week’s International Bluegrass Music Association fest, worked in Raleigh with brother Charlie in 1937 and 1938.
Tom Ewing, a former Monroe band member who’s at work on a comprehensive biography of the musician, said the Raleigh stint came at a crucial point for Bill, the youngest of his family growing up in Rosine, Ky.
“It was a time period when Bill really started to decide that he needed to get on his own,” said Ewing, 69, an author, musician and caretaker of the Bill Monroe Homeplace in Rosine. “He had had enough of Charlie and needed to move on with his life. He was his own man.”
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The Monroe Brothers likely arrived in Raleigh in January 1937, then started their own show on WPTF on Feb. 8, Ewing said. One week later, they traveled to Charlotte to record on the Victor label. Such signature tunes as “What Would You Give In Exchange for Your Soul” and “My Long Journey Home” showed off Monroe’s increasingly skillful mandolin and tenor vocals, along with Charlie’s steady guitar and lead singing.
News & Observer archives show that the brothers took part in events such as a 1937 benefit for victims of a devastating flood in Louisville, Ky., a program of hymns at Calvary Baptist Sunday School and a pie supper at Rolesville Church. However, the tension between Bill and Charlie continued to build, Ewing said. Bill had married, and he and his wife, Carolyn, had their first child and lived in a separate home, at 1208 Fillmore Street near Wade Avenue, rather than rooming with Charlie.
Charlie stayed at a boardinghouse near the present day Memorial Auditorium, just blocks from WPTF’s studios in the current Wake County Office Building on South Salisbury Street. In a 1983 interview with Triangle music figure Art Menius, Bill Monroe recalled his Raleigh days.
“They treated us awful good, and we played a lot of shows, schoolhouses, back in those days,” Monroe said. “We’d drive down the road, and we’d see them out there. When we worked on WPTF, the farm people were working hard, and they were plowing with mules and horses the cotton fields and corn fields and tobacco.”
Less than a year after leaving Raleigh and putting together a band of his own, Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys debuted at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, the beginning of a legendary career. But at least part of that foundation had been laid during the many shows played over WPTF’s powerful signal.
“They were heard all over the Southeast,” Ewing said.
Big exec, big hotel
The Stanley Brothers are most often remembered by fans these days for the work of brother Ralph, who remains a touring performer at 88. Ralph Stanley earned overwhelming fame late in life when his music was featured in the multiple-award-winning 2000 movie and soundtrack “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
But in 1948, when Carter and Ralph Stanley moved to Raleigh, they had for several years established themselves as the first band to follow Monroe’s example in the fast-paced, high-pitched style that was not yet even called bluegrass.
Because of the Stanleys’ mountain-style take on Monroe’s music as heard on the Opry and on Columbia Records, Monroe was angry when he found out that Art Satherley, a Columbia executive, had signed the Stanleys to the label. Satherley, an industry legend who had inked the likes of Gene Autry and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, traveled to Raleigh in 1948 to sign the Stanleys.
According to Ralph Stanley, the signing took place in a big downtown hotel, where Satherley came with a bundle of cash to cap off the deal. And classic Stanleys recordings such as “The White Dove,” “Pretty Polly” and “Gathering Flowers from the Masters’s Bouquet” appeared on Columbia. True to form, the cantankerous Bill Monroe quit Columbia as a result of the Stanley Brothers’ signing.
Like nearly all the cornerstone acts of bluegrass, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were farm boys, and an odd form of agriculture practiced in Wake County stuck in Scruggs’ mind for more than 50 years.
“Show dates just wasn’t no good in the summer months over there in Raleigh because they did a lot of night farming. They had those tractors with lights on ’em,” banjo ace Scruggs told this reporter in 2007.
“They’d be farming at night. It would look like nobody lived around Raleigh but neighbors, you’d see them in the daytime.”
Don Nicholson, 48, regional agronomist for the state agriculture department, explained in an interview that lower-powered farm equipment could take many hours a day to complete tasks:
“I do know older folks when they bought a tractor, especially down in tobacco country, which Wake County used to be, they would have a Super A or an A, a 18-horsepower, ... and they would run that 24 hours a day.”
A year or so before coming to WPTF, Flatt and Scruggs had left Mercury Records for Columbia and had discs coming out on both labels, increasing their reputation and draw in other areas.
“We did financially all right; course it wasn’t very far from Raleigh up to Rising Sun, Md., and New River Ranch (Maryland) where they paid a good flat rate on Sunday,” Scruggs said of the country venues that thrived near Washington, D.C.
N&O entertainment writer Bill Morrison interviewed Flatt and Scruggs separately after their breakup in 1969, and both had fond memories of Raleigh.
Flatt recalled how the material success that was beginning to greet the band paid off in Raleigh: He left town driving a new ’52 Ford, “his first mark of success.”
Scruggs said in 1974: “One thing that really sticks out is the nature of the people (in Raleigh). I don’t believe I’ve been in any town where I made friends as quickly as I did there. I’ve been in many part of the country since then and maybe it’s me. But no time was there people like that. We had a lot of close friends, neighborly type friends.”