Born in Rosine Kentucky, he was the youngest of eight children. Orphaned at age 11 he was raised by his uncle, fiddler Pendleton Vandiver. Learning the fiddle from his mother and taught further by his uncle, at an early age he began playing dances with uncle and brothers. Besides his uncle (whom he immortalized in the song "Unlce Pen") his musical inspiration was Arnold Schultz, a black guitarist from whom he learned the blues. By the early 1930s he and his brother Charlie had a successful duo, cutting their first record in 1936, but in 1938 they broke up. In the late 1930s, the first person to make the mandolin a lead instrument in country music, he developed the style that became bluegrass. In has debut at the Grand Old Opry in 1939 he performed a version of 'Rodgers, Jimmy (II)' tune "Muleskinner Blues" - this is generally considered the first true bluegrass tune. In the classic band The Bluegrass Boys in the late 1940s he set an instrumental standard for bluegrass that still stands. In later years, with the explosion of interest in bluegrass on college campuses, he began an expanded career with festival appearances. In 1981, battling colon cancer, he wrote and recorded "My Last Days on Earth" - those last days lasted another 15 years.