Bill Monroe's Banjo Players
Bill Monroe had a lot of banjo players over the years, some for a long time, some for one show only, a few not very good, most excellent. Bill ran a school for musicians for over 50 years. It happened to be called The Bluegrass Boys.
Any time someone has the opportunity to be close to the master of a discipline, there is a school available. Whether or not that person chooses to learn what or how much of what the master has to offer, or chooses to pay the price he demands openly or covertly is separate. The considerable skills the band members had when they got to the door were the entrance exam, just like it is necessary to graduate from college before entering graduate school. Monroe knew he was a natural teacher. One example is that he reportedly told Peter Rowan on meeting him, "You need to come to Nashville. I can he'p you."
Two other long running schools like this are the Clinch Mt. Boys (Ralph Stanley) and the Sunny Mt. Boys (Jimmy Martin).
This is a fairly complete list, and would not be so without the information generously sent to me by former Bluegrass Boys, their friends and people who were there at shows. I welcome any corrections and additions.
I also remember a list of players to date in a copy of Banjo Newsletter or Pickin' in the mid 70's. I have not been able to locate it. If anyone can forward that information to me I would appreciate it and integrate it into this list.
I do not include times when former band members played in on stage reunions with Monroe, like the one with Reno at Stanley's McClure Festival in '75.
- Dave "Stringbean" Akeman (42-45)
- Jim Andrews (45 - tenor banjo!)
- Earl Scruggs (45-48) Put Bluegrass banjo on the map.
- Don Reno (48-49) Over his entire career, probably the most wildly inventive player so far. The wolves are nipping at the heels of his accomplishments.
- When Reno caught up with Monroe on a Saturday night in '48 somewhere in the Carolinas, Flatt was still in the band but Scruggs had left. Reno met with Monroe in the intermission, played a few tunes backstage, and was brought on at the end of the second set as "a special guest". They played 4 tunes. Reno went on with Monroe that night, and by early the next week (Monday?) Flatt was gone. So there was a version of the Bluegrass Boys the included Reno and Flatt, however short lived.
- Rudy Lyle (49-51, 53-54, 60) - "He was powerful." - B. Monroe
- James (Gar) Bowers (51) - Gar recorded "Christmas Time's A-Comin'" and "The First Whippoorwill" (10/28/51).
- Sonny Osborne (52, 53) A teenager at this time, suddenly in the limelight.
- Jim Smoak (52-53, 54)
- Larry Richardson (53) - per Sonny Osborne's recollection
- Hubert Davis (54)
- Jackie Phelps (54?) - Two finger banjo player, played everything: Benny Martin's assessment of him: "That sumbich could play Little Rock Getaway on a jew's harp!"
- Noah Crase (54, 56)
- Joe Stuart (55,57,64)
- Don Stover (57)
- Eddie Adcock (about 57-58) - Very rough times for Monroe.
- Joe Drumright (58,59,64)
- Harley Bray (June 58), also summer of 60. Harley writes: "I wanted to give you the dates I played banjo with Bill. The first time was in June 1958 at Bean Blossom, Indiana, along with Red Cravens on guitar and my brother Francis on bass. I was in the army home on leave. The other several times were in the summer of 1960 when my brothers Nate and Francis and Red Cravens played at Bean Blossom almost every weekend. Our band was called "Red Cravens and the Bray Brothers. During this time, Bill offered me a job playing banjo with him, but I declined because we were trying to break into the music business as a band. We had some success in 1961 with a record on the Liberty label and toured for a while with the country music package shows."
- Robert Lee Pennington (58,59)
- Ted Lundy (late 50's ?)
- Rudy Lyle (60 see also above, 49)
- Harley Bray, see also 58 above.
- Buck Trent (60-61) - Several road trips, per his son Charles Trent.
- Curtis McPeake (60-61)
- Tony Ellis (61-62)
- Lonnie Hoppers (62)
- David Deese (62)
- Del McCoury (62-63, 64)
- Bill Keith (63) - introduced melodic/chromatic/fiddle style to the mainstream Bluegrass world. From Boston at the time, almost certainly Monroe's first non southern banjo player.
- Bobby Diamond (63-64?) Joined the band at the 2 week booking at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles over Christmas 1963. He was flown in from Washington DC.
- Steve Arkin (64) A second exponent of melodic style, although in his own writings he claims to have not been as adept as Bill Keith.
- Sandy Rothman (64) See also Fill in below.
- Bill Gokey (64, maybe other times) - A lefty, plays right handed. Another Northerner, from Ogdensburg-upon-St. Lawrence, NY.
- Gene Roberts (64-65). Big man physically, apparently Monroe liked him for that reason (per Bill Gokey).
- Don Lineberger (65) - Left handed. Recorded The Long Black Veil, I live in the past, and There's an Old, Old House with Monroe on 3-16-65.
- Lamar Grier (65-67) - The band also included Peter Rowan and Richard Green part of the time. A wild bunch for Monroe to guide.
- Butch Robins (67, short stint following graduation from high school, including Bean Blossom. See also 77-81. Thanks to Butch for writing with the information of his times with Monroe.)
- Vic Jordan (67-68)
- Rual Holt Yarbrough (69-70)
- Bobby Thompson (70) - Bobby is known as a leading example playing in the melodic style. He was was observed in his hometown of Converse S.C. as early as 1949 or 50 in frustration because he could not figure out how to play all the notes in a tune rather than outlining it in Scruggs style. Bobby would play this style with Jim and Jesse informally (say while driving somewhere to a playing date) by about 1960, but seldom on stage.
- R. C. Harris - (71)
- Earl Snead (71)
- Jack Hicks (72-74)
- Ben Pedigo (73)
- James (Jim) Morotto (summer 73-74) - He is on the "Lester Flatt Live!" (RCA label APL1-058) recorded at Vanderbilt University on March 18, 1974. It is the first reunion for Lester and Bill since the early classics in the forties. The liner notes on musicians list Mssrs. Kenny Ingram (with Lester) and James Marotto as the banjo players. Kenny Baker is there and a very young Marty Stuart was also playing mandolin with Lester Flatt at that time. (thanks to Fred Shoemaker for this info, and to Dan Huckabee for pointing out my spelling Moratto wrong for the last 5 years....)
- Dwight Dillman (74)
- Bob Black (74-76)
- Bill Holden (76-77)
- Butch Robins (77-81, see also 67)
- R. C. Harris (81)
- Blake Williams (81-91)
- Dana Cupp (91-96)
- Ralph Stanley (51)
- Bill Emerson (58) - "I think it was in 1956 that I drove to Nashville and applied for a job with Monroe. He said, 'You have a good right hand, but right now I need someone with more experience.' Through a chance encounter in the spring of 1958, I had the opportunity to play with Bill at New River Ranch in Rising Sun, Maryland. He asked me to stay on with him, but I told him I already had a job and continued with the Country Gentlemen. I later played with him on several other occasions." From a Banjo Newsletter interview, September 2009.
- Harold Streeter (60's sometime)
- Neil Rosenberg (61, 65 per NVR)
- Winnie Winston (65)
- Doug Dillard (67 or 68), Picture on p.50 of Bill Knopf's magnum opus on Doug (The Bluegrass Banjo Style of Douglas Flint Dillard, Alamo Publications, 1980) with Monroe and another banjo player. There may have been another date at a college in San Diego when Monroe came out alone, no band, or this could be the same show.
- Paul Wiley (67)
- Bob Warford (67) - Monroe used the Kentucky Colonels as a fill in band when the bus broke down and was the band was stranded, unable to make a 1-2 week booking at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles in April or May 1967. Bob was the banjo player for the Kentucky Colonels. Mail to .
- David Dougherty - filled in and played banjo for Bill Monroe on Johnny Cash's TV show in December in 1972.
- Larry Beasley - At least at the Stanley Festival in McClure VA, May 1974, also 1/77 - 6/77?)
- Wayne Shrubsall, Nov 1, 1974 at the First (and last) Bill Monroe Arizona Bluegrass Festival in Payson Arizona. The rest of the band was en route by motor home to Fort Pierce, Florida to play on Nov 2-3. Source: Come Hither, Go Yonder by Bob Black, p. 43-44.
- Alan O'Bryant (78 - filled in for Butch Robins at the Ralph Stanley festival when Butch went home to bury his father that weekend. )
- Paul Kovac - July 5, 1981. Paul writes "I was the (one-day) banjo player for Bill Monroe & BG Boys, at a festival in Geneva, OH.. It was a couple days after Butch Robbins left. Bill loaned me Butch's hat & tie so I'd fit the part. We played two shows, John Duffy joining the band on stage at one point. At the end of the day, he paid me. It was quite a day for a 25 year old banjo player. I have a few photos from that day, and one of the shows was audio taped."
- Wayne Sowers - Filled in at a weekend festival in Shelby NC in the mid 1980's. Wayne was playing for Frank Beucanon, who was a bluegrass boy in the early 60's. Something happened with Bill's banjo man, but Bill called Frank and as Wayne was up on what Bill was doing in his shows at the time, it worked out well.
- Ry Cooder - December 63 for one week at the Ash Grove in LA after Bill Keith had to fly back to a final air force reserve meeting in Boston, which coincided with his leaving the Monroe band.
- Jens Kruger
- Mike Bub (on the Opry)
- Bela Fleck - late 91 - early 92 Filled in for Dana Cupp on a Japanese video shoot in Nashville, Dana was away and couldn't make it on short notice. Monroe was not totally pleased with the session, and especially that Fleck was not in a suit. BTW, Fleck would really like a copy of the video if someone has one.
- Lloyd Douglas -- Jim & Jesse's banjo player. Jim died on 12-31-02, but an article in the Nashville Tennessean for 1-30-03 said: "Despite the tragedies, Jesse is unbowed. 'Music's the only thing I know how to do,' he says. 'It's all I've ever done working in a regular profession. I'll keep doing it as long as people want to come out.'" Lloyd formerly played with The Warrior River Boys, was originally from Michigan. He filled in with Monroe at Charlotte, Michigan in 1992.
- Chris Quinn - (92) in Toronto, with Dana Cupp playing bass, per Chris.
- Rob McCoury - Occasional fill ins for Dana Cupp.
- Sandy Rothman (93) - Fill in for Dana Cupp when Dana went home for Christmas. Also filled in for Tom Ewing on guitar over Christmas 92 when Tom took some time off. See his remembrance Christmas Without Bill.
- Steve Huber (95) - Fill in on the Opry when Dana Cupp went home for Christmas.
- Cecil Lloyd (Pee Wee) Buttrey
- Bobby Hicks
- Bobby Atkins -. Quote from Bobby in the Easter Brothers Music Store in Mt Airy NC in 1974 -"When you worked for Bill Monroe, you WORKED for Bill Monroe. Sunday you were picking banjo, Monday you were behind a mule in the field! I only lasted a few weeks, cause if I had wanted to work behind a mule, I could have stayed on the farm and never learned to pick the banjo!" The Bobby Atkins LP (Country Grass circa 74-75) liner notes say "Bobby worked for Bill three different times over several years and in 1961."
- Charlie Cline
- Bobby Diamond
- Donny Bryant (before 63?)
- Porter Church (60?)
- Randy Grindstaff (?)
- Fred Heilbrun
- Bruce Nemerov, (64-65?...also 9-73?) who was perhaps in high school at the time. He went on to become a producer in Nashville. For example, he produced at least one of the Nashville Bluegrass Band's albums.
- Radford Vance - supposedly 79- early 80 according to the man himself. How this fits with Butch Robbins tenure (77-81, above) which I learned directly from him via email I do not know.
- Bill Pruett
- Billy Rose - late 80's?
- Roger Smith - (54-55?, others)
- J.D.Crowe - (95?)
- Scott Vestal - (95?)
Up to 87 banjoists known so far.......
See also Stewart Evan's Blue Grass Boys site for another listing of Monroe musicians, including other instruments.
I welcome corrections or enhancements to the existing listings here.
Previously in this note, I mentioned that I would not make any changes to this page. I have changed my mind. As long as I can autenticate the information, I will add it. I will mark such changes by making the player's name green.
Paul was very passionate about this list. It is one of the last pages he updated before he died.
Last Updated 19 Jan 2018 by WF
Last Updated 26 Nov 2006 by PJH
Edited 07 Apr 2007 by WF