Bill Monroe named a handful of his tunes after places in southern Indiana near Bean Blossom, the home of his country music park and bluegrass festival. Tunes such as “Brown County Breakdown” and “Road to Columbus” got their names from places Bill would pass on his way to the park. “Stoney Lonesome” is another one of these, named after a small community in Bartholomew County, Indiana, that is quite literally on the road to Columbus, Ohio.
The town of Stony Lonesome, Indiana, has been noted for its unusual and apt name. In a book of Indiana place names, Ronald Baker said the name was “descriptive, as the locale was both stony and lonesome.” The tune’s name is spelled with an “e” despite the town being spelled “Stony.” “Stoney” is a common misspelling (though less egregious than “smokey” vs. “smoky”) and while it is unclear where or how this mistake was made, it appears on all printed versions of the tune.
The track was recorded on January 30, 1959 during a Decca session with Jack Cooke on guitar, Bessie Lee Mauldin on bass, and Robert Lee Pennington on banjo, and features the twin fiddling of Charlie Smith and Bobby Hicks. A diary entry from Charlie Smith reveals both that he and Monroe wrote the tune together and that Monroe used Bill Thomas’s F-12 mandolin on the session while his usual instrument was in the Gibson factory getting a tune-up.
“Stoney Lonesome” was released for the first time on the 1965 Decca instrumental compilation album Bluegrass Instrumentals (DL 4601). It was recorded on Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe and therefore also appears on Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe. Interestingly, there’s a seemingly unrelated Hank Crawford tune from the early 1960s of the same name with the same misspelling of “stoney.”
I recorded this version of “Stoney Lonesome” in Stony Plain, Alberta, during the Blueberry Bluegrass Festival and specifically during The Travelin’ McCourys’ set, which you can hear in the background. The festival has been around since the mid-80s and many of the promoters were excited to tell me that it was the last festival that Monroe played before he quit touring, which I haven’t been able to confirm, but wouldn’t it be a nice tie-in for this blog if it turned out to be true? I tried to capture some of the fiddle and mandolin interpretations from the original recording in my arrangement. As usual, Monroe’s phrasing is exciting and interesting. And as usual, I’m not sure how good a job I did expressing that.
Learn Monroe-Style Mandolin with Mike Compton on Peghead Nation!
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