Bluegrass Odyssey

A Documentary in Pictures and Words, 1966-86 by Carl Fleischhauer and Neil V. Ros

by Wayne Brown


A Short Trip

Bluegrass music can trace its pedigree to the days of the Depression, and perhaps even further back to the days of strip-mining, the railroad expansion, and prison work gangs. As uniquely an American musical genre as jazz, this sidebar of country-western music owes its unique sound to expert complex instrumentals performed by masters of their particular instruments and wonderfully scripted ballads telling the tales of their forebears and diverse more. Just as jazz is the music of African-Americans and their fight for identity, so too did bluegrass echo the soul of the poor white Appalachian population. The roots of rock ‘n’ roll may be heard in the early styling of such bluegrass luminaries as Bob Wills, Gid Tanner, Flatt & Scruggs, Denver Duke, Jeffrey Null, and of course, Bill Monroe.

Authors Carl Fleischhauer and Neil V. Rosenberg have supplied the world with a short jaunt down the muddied roads of this distinctly American art form in Bluegrass Odyssey, an interesting “coffee table” volume filled with quaint black-and-white photos from the latter part of the twentieth century. Attention to virtually every aspect of the bluegrass experience is paid loving homage, from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, to the world of the honky-tonk, the tour bus, instrument repair shops, and to the yearly music festivals held throughout the northeastern corners of the United States. We are given a pleasant and nostalgic peek into the lives of the performers and their love for their music and trademark instruments.

cover art

Bluegrass Odyssey

Carl Fleischhauer and Neil V. Rosenberg

A Documentary in Pictures and Words, 1966-86

(University of Illinois Press)

Unfortunately, the book is misleading. The authors seem to believe that bluegrass music began during the 1960s. Occasional mention of the early work of legendary performers like Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, and Pendleton Vandiver (Bill Monroe’s uncle and probably greatest influence) tease the reader with promises of more. Yet these references are slight and in need of expansion. They also seem convinced that the legendary mandolin impresario, Bill Monroe, was totally responsible for the development of this music genre. The man’s life and influence are related with warmth and reverence, and there is even a chapter titled and dedicated to “The Monroe Myth,” promising to set straight the myth behind the man. Perhaps a different title might have changed my expectations. Perhaps The Influence of Bill Monroe on the World of Bluegrass Music would have been more to the point. As a paean to the talented Mr. Monroe, this volume serves the reader well.

Bluegrass Odyssey is more a family album of a small group of entertainers and their quest for acceptance in the turbulent days of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties than an in-depth exploration of one of America’s favorite musical genres. A tribute to Bill Monroe and his closest conspirators, as they wend their way through Ohio, Kentucky and (By God!), West Virginia. Though lacking in depth, the book is well-written and the photographs are beautiful. The lives of the performers, stage hands and families involved in the extreme rigor of traveling gypsy-like from town to town are best shown on a canvas of black, white, and grays.

When reading the final chapter regarding Bill Monroe, I was reminded of a story told about his legendary conceit. It seems that a bluegrass sideman was hurrying to the Grand Ole Opry to perform with an undisclosed group of string pickers. In his haste to make the jam session, he lost control of his car and hit a tree. Upon waking, he was met by Saint Peter at the pearly gates.

Saint Peter welcomed him into Hillbilly Heaven and eased the unlucky plucker through the impressive gateway.

At first glance around the room, beyond the glittering gates, he espied Jimmie Rodgers crooning in one corner. He next found Ernest Tubb, in his trademark overalls, tuning his guitar. He shook his head sadly and was then led into yet another room. Here he stared in disbelief! The world’s greatest mandolin player was standing in the corner, wearing a dark suit with a white 10-gallon hat, and tuning up to “Muleskinner’s Blues.”

The tragic accident victim turned to Saint Peter, and said, “Oh, no! What happened! I was on my way to the Grand Ole Opry to jam with Mister Monroe, and here he is! How ever did he die?”

Saint Peter replied, “Oh, that’s not Bill. That’s God. He just thinks he’s Bill Monroe!”

Stories about Bill Monroe and other bluegrass personalities run rampant throughout the musical world. These are the tales of mythic proportion which characterize the essence of this unique slice of Americana and pay homage to the beginnings of the “Bluegrass Odyssey.” Perhaps our authors will jam again and this time tell the whole tale of bluegrass music, not just about Bill Monroe.

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