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Bill Monroe's Estate Sale: The Stuff Of Bluegrass Legend

Stephen Jerkins/WPLN

It's an estate sale for the ages. Stuff belonging to Bill Monroe, the "Father of Bluegrass," is on sale this weekend just outside of Nashville. As the patriarch of a genre and of a passionate musical family, artifacts from his rise to prominence are in high demand.

Now, 20 years after his death, the Monroe family is cleaning out the closets. Some of the relics from Monroe's life have become almost priceless — like his Gibson mandolin, which he played almost exclusively and famously sold for a million dollars. But that's at the Country Music Hall of Fame, not here at the Monroe family studio in Gallatin, Tenn. The place is surrounded by horse pastures, and some old favorites are playing through the speakers.

As Monroe's "high lonesome" sound rings out, shoppers pick through items that are a little more garage-sale-grade. Hannah Fitzpatrick, snagging some deer antlers, says she's not even much of a bluegrass fan. But another customer, John Vaughn, is, and he's already wearing his funky leather jacket. He says it has "energy."

"I paid 200 bucks for it," he adds. "So now all I can do is pray for fall to get here so I can rock it every day."

Others throw down $10 for a mandolin pick with a certificate of authenticity. Monroe's old musician's union card went for $30. The signed portraits from Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard go quickly.

Some folks in the crowd frequent estate sales to pick up stuff and resell it online — like Roger Martin, for whom this has been an education in music history. The sale has let him see "the tree, if you would, of Monroe," he says. "You've got all kinds of pieces in here autographed by any number of artists that admired him, people that actually learned from him or he was a huge influence on. So then you start learning all these other names. It's pretty cool."

Bill Monroe rose from the humblest of beginnings in a tiny farming community in western Kentucky. His heirs have already donated key pieces, like suits and hats, to museums. There was another estate sale shortly after Monroe's death in 1996, but Jimbo Monroe, Bill's grandson, says there exists at least another warehouse full of his belongings.

"Of course all of the stuff means something to you, but when you have such a large volume of stuff ... it's almost like taking care of a child because you have to make sure it doesn't get wet, doesn't get tore up," Monroe says.

They are holding back the most prized possessions. James Monroe, Bill's son and Jimbo's father, says some materials will remain in the family. "A lot of his lyrics he wrote on paper, we're keeping that kind of stuff," he says. "Some of the pictures I have of my dad back in the '30s and '40s, I'll keep those."

Sally McGlaughlin and other buyers shake hands with the Monroe descendants as they paw through little tchotchkes, vintage neckties, even gardening tools. But some things that could seem mundane have meaning.

Joe Lurgio flips through old show contracts in protective plastic sleeves, finding one with a handwritten letter from Bill on the second page. "It makes people feel closer to — well, I never met him — but somebody they really look up to and somebody that becomes that immortal at this point in time," he says.

In some ways, there is no one like Bill Monroe, says Mike Simpson, the board chair of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Bowling Green, Ky. "There's very few people you can trace an original American art form back to," Simpson says. "For all intents and purposes, I think most every academician and musician traces this American art form to Bill Monroe."

Simpson says he has an "infatuation" with Monroe, especially since they're from the same unincorporated town in Kentucky. He already has an old church pew that sat on Monroe's porch. And today, heading to his car in the rain, his arms are full after dropping $6,000.

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