In the mid-1940s, Kentucky-born musician Bill Monroe was a regular member of the Grand Ole Opry, famed for hopped-up versions of such tunes as Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mule Skinner Blues.” Recording for RCA Victor at the time, in December 1945 the mandolin master welcomed a new member into his band, banjo player Earl Scruggs, who, along with guitarist Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise and bass player Howard Watts, would revolutionize country music, taking the Scots-Irish influence of mountain music and skillfully performing it – at breakneck pace – as a cohesive unit. By 1946, Monroe and band were recording for Columbia and on September 22nd, 1946, 71 years ago today, recorded the song for which Monroe is perhaps best known: “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
Monroe was on tour in Florida when he spotted a large full moon overhead, reminding him of the moons he would spot in the Kentucky skies back home. The “blue moon” phenomenon occurs, depending on whom you consult, either when there are two full moons in a single month or when there are four in a season – in which case the third full moon earns the “blue” distinction. The concept of two moons on the rise could also well have applied to what would occur for the song, for Monroe and for the other artist who cut the tune in 1954. At Sun Records, young rock & roll sensation Elvis Presley and his band picked up the song’s pace, turning it from a waltz to a bluesy rocker and from the b-side of the future King of Rock & Roll’s first single, “That’s All Right,” to a bona fide hit.
Monroe would later joke that Presley’s version, which the shy singer was reluctant to release for fear of offending Monroe, generated some “powerful checks.” It wasn’t long before the songwriter would even tweak his Blue Grass Boys’ arrangement of it, starting it slowly, as Presley had done, and then turning it into a barn-burning bluegrass classic.
By 1965, when the above performance was filmed as part of the country-music movie Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were no longer Blue Grass Boys but were fronting their own band. To perform with him in the film, Monroe had assembled Buddy Spicher on fiddle, Jimmy Elrod on guitar, Don Lineberger playing banjo and James Monroe (Bill’s brother) on bass. Two days after recording the “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and “Mule Skinner Blues” tracks at Bradley’s Barn, Owen Bradley’s high-tech new studio outside Nashville, the group came together again to play (well, lip-sync) for the cameras. This time, however, it was Benny Williams on fiddle, trying to keep up with Spicher’s unusual style of playing.
Another of the many distinctions “Blue Moon of Kentucky” is famed for is that it was recorded by both Elvis and also performed in an impromptu jam by three-quarters of the Beatles. Among the many others who have cut the song are the Stanley Brothers, Patsy Cline, George Jones and Melba Montgomery, Levon Helm, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Martina McBride.