Written and first recorded by Jimmie Rodgers in 1930, this classic country song became a signature tune for Bill Monroe a decade later. It was Monroe's first recording as a solo artist apart from his group The Monroe Brothers. His energetic cry "Good Moooooorning, Captain!" opens the yodeling tune about a proud mule skinner trying to land a job. A mule skinner is another name for a mule driver, who leads one or more of the animals to deliver goods to customers. Backed by his Blue Grass Boys band, Monroe assures the boss he is adept at handling the stubborn beasts (in this case, "skinning" is slang for "outsmarting").
Monroe secured a regular spot in the Grand Ole Opry when he auditioned with this song. He also sang it during his Opry debut at Nashville's War Memorial Auditorium in 1939 to an astounding response that resulted in the first encore heard in the history of the broadcast. That performance is included on the 1994 compilation Music of Bill Monroe From 1936 - 1994.
Monroe, known as the Father of Bluegrass, claimed the uptempo tune set the timing for bluegrass music. Biographer Neil Rosenberg noted that "Monroe had found a way to fuse the popular hillbilly songs of the time with the older string band music."
Monroe re-recorded this in 1950 as "New Mule Skinner Blues," with updated lyrics by George Vaughn (aka Vaughn Horton), who is sometimes listed as co-author of the original. In Rodgers' song, the narrator is a one-woman man trying to earn money to keep his lady well-stocked in booze and hats, but Monroe's take casts him as a lothario juggling three women. In "New Mule Skinner Blues," he's back to one broad. He also addresses the boss as foreman instead of captain.
Dolly Parton sang this from the perspective of a female mule skinner from Tennessee on her 1970 version, notching a #3 hit on the Country chart and earning a Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Vocal. She also sang it with Monroe for the CBS TV special Fifty Years of Country Music in 1978.
This was the only hit single for the rockabilly duo The Fendermen. Their 1960 version peaked at #5 on the pop chart and #16 on the country chart. Other acts to cover the tune include Roy Acuff, Woody Guthrie, Don McLean, The Cramps, and Van Morrison.
A cover by Lonnie Donegan was used in the 2011 movie We Need To Talk About Kevin, starring Tilda Swinton.