In January 1954, almost a year to the day after a devastating auto accident near White House, Tennessee, in which he suffered multiple injuries, bluegrass legend and Grand Ole Opry star Bill Monroe returned to the recording studio to cut a dozen tracks for his next Decca Records project. One of those was a traditional tune called “White House Blues,” a tune about the 1901 assassination of President William McKinley, popularized in the mid-1920’s by banjo player Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers. Nearly three decades after Monroe’s recording – featuring breakneck banjo by Rudy Lyle and (in Monroe’s words) a “hot chorus” of the bandleader’s mandolin – Monroe would have his own White House-related experiences, one rather humorous and the other much more serious.
As the Father of Bluegrass Music, Bill Monroe was often recognized for his essential role in popularizing the American art form. With banjo player Earl Scruggs’ December 1945 Opry appearance with the band, which already included guitarist Lester Flatt, bassist Cedric Rainwater and fiddle player Chubby Wise, Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys would become one of the most important, influential musical acts of all time. As such, and especially later in his life, Monroe was recognized with induction into the Country Music, Bluegrass and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame as well as dozens of other honors. No stranger to the White House in Washington, D.C., Monroe was awarded a National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1995, a year before his death. He was also the recipient of a 1982 National Heritage Fellowship award. And in 1980, President Jimmy Carter introduced Monroe and his band, as well as musician Doc Watson, at a special White House event. Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys’ performance included one of his most popular songs, “Uncle Pen.”
Thirty-five years ago, on this date in 1983, Monroe would return to the White House at the invitation of President and Mrs. Ronald Reagan for a luncheon honoring the arts and humanities. Monroe, who had left his official invitation in a briefcase on his tour bus, nearly missed the event. But he had the case rushed to the airport and made his way through security without any issues. As recalled in the Monroe biography Can’t You Hear Me Callin’, by Richard D. Smith, at the White House Monroe was introduced to the only other performer on the bill that afternoon: Frank Sinatra. Shaking hands with the bluegrass icon, Sinatra told him how much he admired his music and also mentioned having enjoyed listening to the Grand Ole Opry in the Forties, citing other performers including Roy Acuff. “Now, what did you say your name was?” the 71-year-old Monroe asked. “I’m Frank Sinatra,” he replied. “And what is it that you do?” Monroe said, to which Sinatra replied, “I’m a singer.” “I believe I’ve heard of you,” Monroe deadpanned. “Well, I hope so,” Sinatra is said to have replied graciously.
On their way out of Washington, Monroe, his briefcase in hand, went through security at the airport, but this time there was a problem. And not a little one. When the case was X-rayed, security saw the outline of a gun, a .357 magnum, to be exact, which the musician had forgotten was inside. Locked with his manager in a holding cell, the situation got worse once he mentioned the presidential luncheon. With Secret Service agents now in the room, Monroe repeatedly tried to explain he had a Friday night Opry performance to get to. Even his good friend, amateur fiddler and Virginia senator Robert Byrd, couldn’t get the case dismissed. Monroe ended up paying a $15,000 fine. He did, however, avoid imprisonment and the incident went largely unnoticed in the press at the time.