Blue Moon of Kentucky: Bill Monroe; Elvis Presley; Patsy Cline

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Blue Moon of Kentucky. This is an important ‘roots’ bluegrass song, originally recorded in the 1940s. We will start with the original song by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. We will then review covers by Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline.

Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys and Blue Moon of Kentucky:

Bill Monroe was a legendary country singer and mandolin player. He was a giant in the field of country music; in fact, he is personally credited with inventing the bluegrass style of music.

Monroe was born in 1911, the youngest of eight children of Buck and Malissa Monroe. Monroe’s mother and her brother, “Uncle Pen” Vandiver, had considerable musical talent and formed a family string band.

Being the youngest, Bill Monroe was relegated to playing the mandolin. He would accompany his Uncle Pen, who played fiddle, at dances in their Kentucky neighborhood.

When he grew up, Monroe formed a number of bands and performed across the Midwest and South. At that time, he was experimenting with various musical styles that would eventually coalesce into bluegrass.

Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys; Monroe is 2nd from right playing the mandolin.

Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys; Monroe is 2nd from right playing the mandolin.

At left is a photo of Bill Monroe with his Bluegrass Boys.  It is the cover of a compilation album of his great bluegrass hits from the period 1950-1958.  Monroe is in front at the microphone, playing his mandolin.

In 1945, the final piece of this musical puzzle was assembled when North Carolina banjo player Earl Scruggs joined the group. Scruggs was the premier advocate of a distinctive staccato three-finger style of banjo playing.

Once Scruggs joined Monroe, guitarist Lester Flatt, fiddler Chubby Wise and bassist Howard Watts, they became known as the Original Bluegrass Band.

At this point, Monroe’s band included
all the elements that characterize the genre [of bluegrass], including breakneck tempos, sophisticated vocal harmony arrangements, and impressive instrumental proficiency demonstrated in solos or “breaks” on the mandolin, banjo, and fiddle.

Bill Monroe wrote Blue Moon of Kentucky in 1946. He and the Bluegrass Boys recorded the song in the fall of that year, and it was released in 1947.

Here are the lyrics to Blue Moon of Kentucky. The singer requests that the moon continue shining on his unfaithful lover, who has “gone and left me blue.”

Blue moon of Kentucky keep on shining
Shine on the one that’s gone and proved untrue
Blue moon of Kentucky keep on shining
Shine on the one that’s gone and left me blue

It was on a moonlight night
The stars were shining bright
And they whispered from on high
Your love has said good-bye

Blue moon of Kentucky keep on shining
Shine on the one that’s gone and said good-bye

Blue Moon of Kentucky became a big hit for Bill Monroe and his group. It was extremely popular with country musicians, and was frequently featured on Grand Ole Opry, the grand-daddy of American country radio.

Here are Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys in a live performance of Blue Moon of Kentucky.

http://www.vevo.com/watch/bill-monroe/blue-moon-of-kentucky-(live)/USSE91333803

Bill Monroe contributes the lead vocals and also produces one of his signature mandolin solos. Monroe’s work is nicely complemented by the fiddle, guitar and banjo in his quartet.

You will note that the song consists of two separate halves. The first half is a waltz in 3/4 time, delivered at a languid and measured pace. The second half is much faster, and this segment is now played in 4/4 time.

There is a fascinating reason for the fact that Bill Monroe’s song is played in two different tempos (tempi?). But we will get to that in the second segment of this blog post.

Blue Moon of Kentucky is now the official bluegrass song for the state of Kentucky. In 2003, the song was also added to the National Library of Congress National Recording Registry. And in 2011,
CMT ranked “Blue Moon” number 11 in its list of 100 Greatest Songs in Country Music.

Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs appeared on the recording of Blue Moon of Kentucky, although two years later in 1948 the two musicians would break away and form their own bluegrass band, the Foggy Mountain Boys, also referred to simply as Flatt and Scruggs.

With Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe recorded a series of classic bluegrass tunes between 1946 and 1948 on Columbia Records. Blue Moon of Kentucky was the most famous of these songs.

One might think that losing these two terrific musicians would be seriously detrimental to Bill Monroe’s music; however, Monroe simply replaced Flatt and Scruggs and carried on. He switched to Decca Records, where his new band created a style referred to as the “high lonesome” sound. Many consider this period to be the “golden age” of Monroe’s stellar career.

Monroe was apparently an ornery guy. He was famously hard on the members of his bands, holding them to extremely high standards of musicianship. And he was openly contemptuous of many of his competitors. Monroe
would often say of groups that did not perform to his standards, “That ain’t no part of nothin’.”

In the 1950s, bluegrass music declined in popularity due to several factors. One of these was the appearance of rock and roll; a second was the development of the “Nashville sound” in country music.

For about a decade, Monroe struggled to keep his band together, and to make a living as the demand for bluegrass diminished. However, in the 1960s, bluegrass revived in popularity on the coattails of the folk music craze.

I live in Bloomington, Indiana, roughly 20 miles from the site of the annual Bean Blossom Music Festival. In 1967, Bill Monroe himself founded a music festival at this venue, at a rural campground that he had purchased in southern Indiana.

Over time, Bean Blossom would host the country’s biggest and best bluegrass music festival. The final day of the festival always featured a performance by the great Bill Monroe and his group.

I am still kicking myself that, for year after year, I managed not to get out to the Bean Blossom Festival. Then, when I finally made it to the festival in the early 1990s, I discovered that Mr. Monroe was no longer healthy enough to perform; and he died a couple of years later.

So, I missed my chance to see the legendary country musician and the father of bluegrass perform in person. Dang.

Bill Monroe was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1971, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as an “early influence”) in 1997.  Monroe is in elite company here, as
Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, Hank Williams Sr., and Johnny Cash are the only other performers honored in all three.

Elvis Presley and Blue Moon of Kentucky:

We have previously encountered Elvis in our blog post on his cover of Hound Dog.  We also discussed his recording of Always On My Mind, and wrote a post on his early #1 hit Heartbreak Hotel.  Today’s blog will concentrate on the earliest days of Elvis’ career.

Elvis Presley’s first recording session took place in Memphis in fall 1953. He walked into Sam Phillips’ Sun Records Studio and paid to cut a disc containing two songs.

Elvis claimed that he was making a record for his mother, although one suspects that Elvis was hoping he might be ‘discovered.’ Phillips took down Elvis’ name and phone number.

Here is the “Young Elvis” stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service.

Embed from Getty Images

Then in July, 1954, Phillips brought Elvis into his studio with guitarist Scotty Moore and upright bass player Bill Black. They tried out a number of songs, particularly ballads, but failed to produce anything noteworthy for Phillips.

During a break between songs, Presley and Bill Black began horsing around singing a raucous, over-the-top version of Arthur Crudup’s blues song That’s All Right. Black and Presley thought they were merely being foolish and letting off steam.

However, Sam Phillips immediately realized that this could be the big break he had been looking for – “a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel.” He insisted that they reprise the song, together with guitarist Scotty Moore.

Presley, Moore and Black worked closely with Phillips on the production of this song. Phillips had a very clear idea of what he was after, and the trio quickly produced an acceptable final version of the song.

Phillips then sent demo records around to DJs in the Memphis area, particularly Dewey Phillips who had a popular local show. The phones lit up with requests as soon as Phillips played the song. When Phillips interviewed Presley on-air, he was careful to ask Elvis what high school he attended; that way listeners would realize that Elvis was white.

Here is Elvis singing That’s All Right back in his early days. This is the audio of the record, together with some videos of early Elvis performances. The video clips are priceless, as they show young Elvis performing together with Moore and Black.

A dramatic feature of Elvis’ live performances was his appeal to young women. When he first began performing, Elvis was shy and extremely nervous; this caused his legs to shake while he was singing. He noticed that young women interpreted this as a sexual gesture, sort of the male version of the bump-and-grind that one would expect from dancers at a burlesque parlor.

As Elvis gained confidence, he worked the leg-shaking and pelvis-grinding into his act. The video above features several of Elvis’ signature  moves. While older audiences tended to find this tasteless or offensive, younger audiences cheered, and young women screamed. Drummer D.J. Fontana began to accompany Elvis’ dance moves with drum rolls taken directly from strip clubs.

During the next few days after recording That’s All Right, Presley, Moore and Black collaborated with Sam Phillips to record their own version of Bill Monroe’s Blue Moon of Kentucky.

While Monroe’s own version was a stately waltz, Elvis’ cover was an up-tempo version, in a style that would come to be called “rockabilly.” When they had finished with this song, it was also broadcast on Memphis radio stations. Sam Phillips then cut a single record with That’s All Right on the A side, and Blue Moon of Kentucky on the B side.

Scotty and Bill then quit their bands and began to play with Elvis. The trio became locally famous in the greater Memphis area, and began to develop a reputation in the South. On Oct. 2, 1954, the group got potentially a big break when they appeared on Grand Ole Opry.

However, the Opry folks opined that while Elvis was “not bad,” his style was not what the Opry was looking for. A couple of weeks later the group  appeared on the Louisiana Hayride show. Although that show did not have the clout of Grand Ole Opry, they nevertheless broadcast to nearly 200 radio stations in 28 states.

Here is the audio of Elvis’ live appearance on Louisiana Hayride, singing Blue Moon of Kentucky. As you can hear, this is Elvis at his rockabilly best. He swallows his words as he enunciates them, and belts out the version that he, Scotty and Bill developed in collaboration with Sam Phillips.

The Louisiana Hayride folks were sufficiently impressed that they signed Elvis to a contract, where he would appear every Saturday night for a year.

Bill Monroe’s reaction to Elvis’ cover of Blue Moon of Kentucky was extremely interesting. Since Monroe was famous for his contemptuous dismissal of rival musicians, one might have expected him to criticize or ignore Presley’s singing.

However, Monroe was apparently fascinated by Elvis’ up-tempo version of his song. In fact, Monroe changed his own performance of Blue Moon of Kentucky.  Monroe would begin the song in its original tempo, a slow waltz in 3/4 time. Later on, he would dramatically speed up the pace, performing it in 4/4 time just as Elvis had.

This is what we viewed in Bill Monroe’s performance of Blue Moon of Kentucky. The fast second half of the song was in fact a copy of Elvis’ own tempo.

Now back to Elvis. Following his appearances on Louisiana Hayride, Elvis Presley became a sought-after performer on the Southern country & western circuit. He gained a strong regional reputation in the South, and was ready to move onto the national scene.

In 1955, Elvis signed a contract with “Colonel” Tom Parker. Parker had a reputation as one of the shrewdest promoters in country music; he had managed top performer Eddy Arnold and was currently promoting Hank Snow.

There was a brief period of time when it looked like Elvis might have difficulty finding a musical “niche.” Presley’s melding of country rockabilly with black blues meant that, initially, some country stations were reluctant to play songs by an artist who sounded like an African-American; on the other hand, Elvis’ songs were considered too ‘hillbilly’ for stations that specialized in R&B.

However, in November 1955, Elvis Presley was named the most promising male artist at the Country Disk Jockey Convention. Tom Parker then negotiated a record deal with RCA Victor, which bought out Elvis’ Sun Records contract.

Elvis was now on his way to becoming “The King.” Two of the first records he cut with RCA Victor were Heartbreak Hotel and Hound Dog. In June, 1956 Elvis performed Hound Dog on the Milton Berle TV Show.  At the end of the song, Elvis broke into a bump-and-grind routine.

Critics were not amused.  For example, reporter Jack Gould of the New York Times reviewed the performance.  Gould wrote:
“Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability. … His phrasing … consists of the stereotyped variations that go with a beginner’s aria in a bathtub. … His one specialty is an accented movement of the body … primarily identified with … the blond bombshells of the burlesque runway.”

Although Mr. Gould might have expected that his review would sink Elvis’ career, Presley’s young fans could not get enough of him. And the derisive comments from reviewers simply gave Elvis more publicity.

For example, Elvis’ early promoter Sam Phillips was laughing all the way to the bank. Phillips is quoted as saying “Without the cooperation of total resentment on the part of the parents, Rock ‘n’ Roll would have had a rougher time makin’ it.”

Beginning in 1956, Elvis’ albums and performances made him the king of rock and roll. He would go on to unbelievable heights of fame and fortune, sell a ton of albums and become a legend in his own time.

Unfortunately, as we also know, Elvis would soon begin a terrible downward spiral. He starred in a series of profitable but unbelievably cheesy movies, was prescribed a host of powerful meds by unscrupulous doctors, and eventually died suddenly in 1977 at the age of 42.

Still, Elvis was for many the embodiment of rock ‘n roll. He was rock’s first gigantic superstar, remained an idol throughout his life to millions of fans, and left a fantastic body of work that spanned the fields of rock music, country & western, and gospel music.

Patsy Cline and Blue Moon of Kentucky:

Patsy Cline was one of the greatest female country singers. She had a brilliant career that was tragically cut short in her prime.

Patsy Cline was born Virginia Patterson Hensley in Winchester, VA. Although she was self-taught and unable to read music, Patsy had perfect pitch. After she recovered from a bout with rheumatic fever at age 13, Patsy discovered that she now had a powerful contralto voice.

She began singing in variety and talent shows in the area around her home. In 1954 she began performing on a radio show hosted by country singer (and later sausage king) Jimmy Dean.

Below is a photo of Patsy Cline in 1958, wearing a fringed dress and holding a cowboy hat.

Embed from Getty Images

In 1955 Patsy secured a contract with Four Star Records, a subsidiary of Decca Records. Unfortunately, her contract stipulated that she could only record songs by Four Star composers. She sold very few records and failed to gain anything like national exposure.

As a result, when she appeared on the nationally-syndicated TV show Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts in January, 1957, she was essentially unknown. Patsy’s mother served as the “talent scout” for her daughter.

The idea was that Patsy would sing a country song called A Poor Man’s Roses on the show. However, Arthur Godfrey’s producers had heard Patsy sing the song Walkin’ After Midnight, and insisted that she perform that song instead.

The studio audience went wild over Patsy’s performance.  They were also wowed at the cocktail dress that Godfrey’s producers had persuaded her to wear, in place of her mother’s hand-crafted cowgirl outfits.

After Patsy won the Arthur Godfrey contest, there was an immediate demand for Walkin’ After Midnight. As a result Decca Records rushed out a single record. Not only was it a major country hit, reaching #2 on the Billboard country music charts, it also became a big pop seller as well, making it to #16 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Having been “discovered” by Arthur Godfrey, and also being one of the first country artists to also find success on the pop charts, Patsy Cline became a singing sensation. She landed a regular gig on Arthur Godfrey’s TV show, and then moved to Nashville.

In 1961, Cline scored another big hit with I Fall To Pieces. This became her first #1 country hit, and once again was a crossover success, reaching #12 on the pop charts and even #6 on the adult contemporary listing.

In 1960 Patsy Cline had become a cast member of Grand Ole Opry. She was a role model to an entire generation of young female country singers. Dottie West, Loretta Lynn, Brenda Lee and Barbara Mandrell all cited Patsy Cline as a major influence on their careers.

The song Blue Moon of Kentucky appeared on the album A Portrait of Patsy Cline. That album was released in 1964, a year following Cline’s death. Here is a live version of Blue Moon of Kentucky from Patsy Cline.

This is an enjoyable tune from the queen of country music of her day. Patsy provides a version that is upbeat, but nothing like the rock ‘n roll take from Elvis.  Patsy throws in a couple of yodels just to keep her audience listening, and shows off her beautiful voice.

In June, 1961, Patsy and her brother Sam were involved in a head-on car collision in Nashville. The impact of the crash threw Patsy into the car’s windshield, and she nearly died from her injuries.

She spent a month recuperating in a hospital, from a dislocated hip, broken wrist and a significant wound to her forehead. Patsy ended up with a large, visible scar across her forehead. Following the accident she wore large wigs that covered her forehead; she also wore headbands to help relieve the pain in her head.

Later in 1961, while she was still on crutches following the auto accident, Patsy Cline recorded Willie Nelson’s song Crazy. This was a major hit for her, and subsequently became Cline’s signature song.

At this point, not only was Patsy Cline the biggest female artist in country music, on several occasions her songs had crossed over into the pop and adult contemporary charts.

Cline was the first female artist to headline her own show. She commanded fees between $1000 and $3000 for a performance, when the going rate for many country groups was more like $200. When she toured with male musicians, she was able to insist that she get top billing.

As she gained success in pop music, Patsy traded in her Western cowgirl outfits for
more elegant gowns, cocktail dresses, spiked heels, and gold lamé pants. At the time, this was unheard-of for a female country star, but it paved the way for artists like Reba McIntyre and Tanya Tucker to try out sexier and less traditional attire.

On March 3, 1963, Patsy Cline performed at a benefit in Kansas City, KS. She appeared in three shows that afternoon and evening. Following the shows, she was unable to leave because of foggy weather.

Two days later, on March 5, Patsy left Kansas City in a plane flown by her manager, Randy Hughes. The plane landed in Dyersburg, TN, and then took off for Nashville, despite the presence of bad weather and high winds.

The plane never made it to Nashville. As Hughes had never been instrument-rated, it is assumed that he tried to use visual clues while flying, but the visibility was apparently insufficient.

After the plane failed to land in Nashville, search parties were assembled and the wreckage of the plane was discovered in a forest outside of Camden, TN. All passengers had apparently died immediately upon impact.

Patsy Cline was only 30 years old. Her singing fame had lasted for only seven years, but she became one of country music’s most enduring female stars. Starting with her first big hit, Walkin’ After Midnight, Patsy Cline hit the big time with both country and pop music songs.

Patsy Cline was the first woman solo artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973. Her election was announced by Johnny Cash. And in 1997, Cline’s recording of Crazy was named the #1 jukebox hit of all time.

What a great talent. Like Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline was taken from us much too soon.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Blue Moon of Kentucky
Wikipedia, Bill Monroe
Wikipedia, Elvis Presley
Wikipedia, Patsy Cline

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
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One Response to Blue Moon of Kentucky: Bill Monroe; Elvis Presley; Patsy Cline

  1. Pingback: Jailhouse Rock: Elvis Presley; Queen; ZZ Top | Tim's Cover Story

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