With last summer’s publication of Richard D. Smith’s Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass (Little, Brown and Co.) it appeared for the moment that we had gotten the final and definitive word on the life of one of America’s greatest musical innovators. When it seems all that could be said or written about Bill Monroe has been exhausted, along comes The Bill Monroe Reader, edited by former Blue Grass Boy Tom Ewing, which neatly winnows out the chaff and gathers into a bundle what emerges as a complete mosaic of the artist. The book is a collection of sixty-five writings: newspaper and magazines articles, liner notes, songbook extracts, personal anecdotes, poems, etc., all with Bill Monroe as their central subject matter. Despite the daunting task of poring over the literally thousands of pages devoted to Monroe, Ewing produces a substantive work that is kept honest by his own incisive editorial notes.
Ewing worked under Bill Monroe as a guitarist for the Blue Grass Boys from 1986 to 1996, the year of Monroe’s death. He was born around the time that Monroe literally invented bluegrass music (the mid-‘40s) and did not become interested in the idiom until his teen years, which coincided with the early ‘60s “folk revival.” His removal from bluegrass through his early years insulated Ewing from some of the tall tales that accompany country music legends. In fact, until the publication of Ralph Rinzler’s article “Bill Monroe - The Daddy of Blue Grass Music” (Sing Out! Feb.-March 1963, which, ironically, was written around the time Ewing made his personal discovery of Monroe’s music), Monroe was a figure shrouded in speculative myth. Following a strict historical chronology, Ewing allows the hyperbole to unfold then gradually dissipate as the truth about Monroe’s life and character surfaced in the artist’s later years.
For example, the book opens with excerpts from “The Monroe Brothers: Their Life, Their Songs” (an introduction to a songbook written by the brothers themselves) which are loaded with truth-stretching if not outright falsehood. We are told that young Bill Monroe was “never angry,” that the boys grew up in the Kentucky mountains, hunted for skins, and were raised to be “Christian gentlemen, God-fearing, kind, sympathetic, living clean, wholesome lives.” In fact, Bill Monroe was notoriously pugnacious. Charlie and Bill were born and raised in Rosine, in western Kentucky, nowhere near the rugged mountains to the east. Bill Monroe’s primary musical influences came from his uncle, fiddler Pen Vandiver, and a local black bluesman Arnold Shultz. It was the amalgamation of these divergent styles, coupled with geographic mobility that allowed Bill Monroe to evolve the bluegrass form. As for the emphasis on clean living, it should be noted that the square dance and corn-shucking music the Monroes played in the beginning was often associated with brawls and infidelity. To become a legitimate icon - Bill Monroe’s real though unconfessed motivation - it was crucial that he become the messiah of a morally wholesome movement, upholding an idea of conduct that he was unable to attain in a few of his personal dealings.
Some of the accounts of Monroe’s moral failings read like Southern gothic: “Monroe, 77, listened calmly as Sumner County Assistant District Attorney General Dee Gay told the court that he doubted the veracity of Wanda Huff, 50, a Birmingham dog trainer who charged Monroe with hitting her in the face with a Bible and kicking her at his Sumner County farm” (The Tennessean, May 11, 1989). Included in the sixteen pages of photographs is a 1976 shot of Monroe seated on a swing with a then 22-year-old Julia Labella, Monroe’s mistress forty-three years his junior. Nevertheless, in several of the articles Monroe stressed the cleanness of bluegrass music, the high standard of conduct expected of participants and fans alike at his Bean Blossom festivals, and his inclusion of gospel music as part of his repertory. Although he appears to have made a sincere and practical religious conversion late in life, Bill Monroe was a complex and self-contradicting figure.
Such was the spell Monroe cast over his devotees, however, that even his mandolin, a 1923 Gibson F-5 “tater bug” model, took on a life of its own. In November of 1985 vandals broke into Monroe’s Goodlettsville, TN farm and severely vandalized his instrument. One article (“Worst-Case Repair”) likens the event to the defacing of Michelangelo’s La Pieta in 1972. In another place Jim Hatlo writes, “To the bluegrass community, the wanton destruction of the mandolins was more than vandalism; it was sheer sacrilege” (Frets 8:9, Sept. 1986). In a six-month procedure as meticulous as brain surgery, Gibson’s best luthier repaired Monroe’s mandolin, free of charge.
While these and other excerpts simultaneously build and debunk the myths surrounding Bill Monroe, the book’s highlights are the articles written by folklorists, musicologists, and reporters who struggle to define bluegrass music. Seminal articles such as “Bluegrass Background: Folk Music with Overdrive” (Alan Lomax), “Bill Monroe - ‘The Daddy of Blue Grass Music’” (Rinzler), “Pickin’ and Singin’” (Newsweek), and “Bluegrass Touches - An Interview With Bill Monroe” (Charles Wolfe) are made wonderfully accessible in this single volume. The reader will benefit from the varied perspectives on the development of bluegrass and its relationship to pre-existing forms, e.g. old-time, country blues, western swing (Monroe was a fan of Bob Wills), and even jazz (Monroe’s fiddler Kenny Baker once remarked that bluegrass is simply jazz on stringed instruments). Since this book focuses exclusively on issues related to Monroe, however, there is virtually no commentary on the significant stylistic hijacking of bluegrass music by the Stanley Brothers and other mountain-based artists. Fortunately, for the reader wishing to pursue this rich line of development, the University of Illinois Press has also published John Wright’s exquisite Traveling the Highway Home: Ralph Stanley and the World of Traditional Bluegrass Music as part of its on-going Music in American Life series.
The Bill Monroe Reader is yet another punctuation on the remarkable life of a man whose stated goal was “to play the mandolin like no one has played it before.” Along the way Bill Monroe invented a genre of music that has crossed cultural and national boundaries and continues to bring pleasure to thousands of enthusiasts world-wide despite unfortunate stereotyping and limited airplay. As a concluding installment on the log of Monroe’s history, The Bill Monroe Reader is indispensable. In addition, it proves again that a documentary-style collection of writings is a highly effective way to treat a subject objectively, drawing on a range of perspectives to obtain a believable composite picture.
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