It was a cold February day in 1950, and at two o’clock that afternoon Grand Ole Opry star Bill Monroe was driving down to the Tulane Hotel, on Church Street in downtown Nashville. He was on his way to the Castle studios, a remodeled dining room in the hotel that had become Nashville’s first real recording studio; there he would meet Paul Cohen, the A&R man for his new record label, Decca. In fact, Monroe’s very first session for Decca was set for 2:30 that afternoon, with a second three-hour session scheduled for 7:30 that night. Monroe had seven songs ready, but even then he knew it would be a long day: He had a new, young band, most of whom had never recorded before, and a new producer to break in as well. And to top it all off, Monroe was in a crisis of sorts in his own career: Though his distinctive music was starting to take off, it was also threatening to get away from him, as young bands around the South began copying the “high lonesome sound.” His new bosses at Decca seemed nervous about Monroe tying himself too much to this sound, and had been making noises about a more mainstream country style.
On that day Monroe was thirty-nine years old, and had been recording for some fourteen years—first with his brother Charlie on the old Bluebird label before World War II, then with his own bands for Bluebird, and, since 1945, for Columbia. Both labels had brought him major successes: “What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul?” with his brother on Bluebird; “Orange Blossom Special” and “In the Pines” with his prewar band for Bluebird; and “Kentucky Waltz,” “Footprints in the Snow” and “Little Community Church” for Columbia. Since September 1946 his recordings had included the singing and guitar of Lester Flatt and the revolutionary banjo sounds of Earl Scruggs. He had won national fame in the early 1940s by landing himself and his Blue Grass Boys a spot on the NBC network portion of the Grand Ole Opry, and the incredible popularity and influence of band members