Click to listen

Click to listen

Sept. 13: Today would have been the 98th birthday of William Smith Monroe, native of Ohio County, Ky. You know him as Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, and a member of the Country Music, Rock and Roll, and International Bluegrass Music Association halls of fame. Known for his “high, lonesome sound,” he also was a prodigious writer of instrumental tunes. Perhaps the most distinctive was this haunting number recorded in 1981, when Monroe had been diagnosed with colon cancer.

“My Last Days on Earth” doesn’t sound much like a bluegrass record. The basic track was Monroe’s mandolin, with guitar and bass. Onto that were added wind and seagull sound effects, a chorus and a string section. Monroe, the epitome of bluegrass traditionalism, liked the final product.

Bill Monroe, 1911-1996

Bill Monroe, 1911-1996

“They wanted to put that in it,” Monroe once told eventual biographer Richard D. Smith, “like it would have been a long time ago … the sea gulls and that, that would have gone back in time.”

The song was released as a single and on Monroe’s Master of Bluegrass album. He survived the cancer scare and other health problems, continuing to record until 1994 and performing until March 1996, when he suffered a stroke after a Friday night Grand Ole Opry appearance. He died six months later, four days before his 85th birthday. Among the music at his public memorial service: this recording of “My Last Days on Earth.”

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