NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Ricky Skaggs can imagine the look his old friend Bill Monroe might have had on his face if he were alive today to see the bluegrass world celebrate his legacy.
"He would get out of the car and have that back straight as an arrow, and he'd have that hat on, and he'd be pulling it off and thanking people," Skaggs said. "He'd really be happy about people celebrating his life."
As members of the International Bluegrass Music Association gather for their annual awards and conference in Nashville this week, Monroe and the message of his music are foremost on their minds. Monroe, the architect of bluegrass and a patron saint of country music, would have turned 100 on Sept. 13. He died in 1996 at the age of 84. Monroe is being honored with concerts in his memory and historical discussions this week, and he'll play a prominent role during the Bluegrass Awards on Thursday as well.
He left behind a legacy that's more vital and thriving than ever and a diaspora of former players and acolytes who continue to spread his music today. Bluegrass, developed from roots deep in the soil of his native Kentucky, has spread around the world. It's evolved with each generation that's passed since that mythic "birth of bluegrass" concert in December 1945 at The Ryman Auditorium that featured the debut of pioneering banjo player Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt.
"Every country that I've ever been in in my whole life, I've always run into somebody who's either talked to me about bluegrass or there was a bluegrass band there, whether it was Russia, Thailand, wherever I've been," Skaggs said. "It's a huge music that's crossed lines."
Monroe will be a featured presence at The Ryman on Thursday night when lead nominees The Boxcars, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, The Gibson Brothers and Alison Krauss & Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas join most of the genre's biggest names for the annual IBMA Bluegrass Awards. He's always been revered in Nashville, but the centennial gives those who knew him a welcome chance to talk about their memories and tell stories about a man who was larger than life.
"I think it's a great time because we still have so many originators of styles such as Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs is still around, Doc Watson we still have, and we've got all these great young new bands," said Sam Bush, who will host the awards show. "Some of them play what you call Nu Grass and some of them take great pride in following the tradition of Bill Monroe. So I think he'd be pretty proud of the entire scene that's going on here."
Bush said he'll focus his remarks on something he once heard Monroe say after listening to a player mimic his sound flawlessly: "Bill looked at him and said, 'Now that's real good. What can you play on your own?'"
Monroe, born on a farm near Rosine, Ky., was already arguably country music's greatest mandolin player when he formed his Blue Grass Boys in 1938 and began refining his sound.
"Bill Monroe was one of the greatest experimenters of them all," Skaggs said. "The whole creation of bluegrass was an experiment. It was a test-tube baby."
By the time he found Scruggs — Monroe reportedly began to dance with joy as Scruggs showed him his new three-fingered playing style — he was writing songs that would help redefine country music.
"One time he told me, 'People don't know it, but I learn from them,'" said Del McCoury, who was Monroe's lead singer for a year in 1963-64. "He meant other musicians. His music comes from a lot of different styles, jazz and what he heard as a kid."
In turn, he would influence new generations of young listeners with his sound. Doyle Lawson first heard Monroe in the late '40s on an Opry broadcast.
"I fell in love with it," Lawson said. "I asked my mother, 'Who is that?' and she told me it's Bill and he played mandolin and he sang really high. And from that day on I never took my eye off the ball. I knew I was going to play music."