Bill Monroe: 1911-1996 – Ryman Auditorium (Nashville, TN)
Peter Rowan tells a story about touring Europe as one of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. As they were going through customs, an agent stopped Monroe and, looking at his passport, asked his name. “Bill Monroe,” he said. Then the agent inquired about his occupation. “Father of bluegrass” was Monroe’s soft reply.
Indeed, Bill Monroe was the father of bluegrass. There was no such thing until he combined elements of old-time string band music, Anglo-American balladry, syncopated African-American dance music, and traditional gospel to create the genre. He groomed his creation meticulously, guarded it ferociously, steadfastly resisting any market considerations to update or make more palatable to radio programmers his high lonesome sound.
Being the spiritual and dominant force of this American art form, as well as its physical personification, was indeed a full-time occupation that lasted for over 60 years. As such, it was fitting that a funeral service for Monroe (who passed away September 6, at the age of 84) was held in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, where he first performed in 1939.
The scene inside was somewhat surreal. The stage was loaded with flowers from all over the world. His music playing softly in the background, Monroe lay in state; near him was his white, wide-brimmed hat, as well as a roll of quarters. He gave coins, by the thousands, to children as good-luck charms over the decades.
As I took my seat in the balcony, I saw Grandpa Jones staring down at this friend for the last time. After a minute or two, someone put an arm around him and mercifully walked Jones away. Next in line for the viewing was another Country Music Hall of Fame/Opry comic icon come to life: Little Jimmy Dickens, who usually seems ageless, but on this day, dressed in a plain dark suit and with tears rolling down his cheeks, looked like the old man he is.
I thought of how far these three go back, how many miles they must have traveled together, and the incredible changes they had witnessed in American culture. From tent shows and 78s to CD-Roms and the Internet, it had been a long road trip.
After everyone had an opportunity to view the body, the casket was closed and the music turned off. In a couple of minutes, four men in suits walked onstage and put Monroe’s cherished mandolin on a stand in the middle of the stage. A single spotlight seemed to transform the simple piece of wood into an instrument of cosmic significance.
Then, over the house PA and louder than any of the previous music, came the sound of wind waves, and the great instrumental “My Last Days On Earth” filled the auditorium. That song was composed by Monroe when he was battling colon cancer in the early ’80s; as a recording, it has very adventurous production, especially for Monroe. The swelling strings and chorus give it a cinematic quality that evokes memories of the weary Hebrews crossing yet another desert in The Ten Commandments. It also has an ethereal quality, which made it the perfect choice for starting the musical segment of the service. It will be impossible for anyone who was there to ever hear that song again and not feel the emotion of the day.
When the song was over, it seemed even quieter in the auditorium than before. The silence was finally broken by footsteps crossing the Ryman’s hallowed wood stage floor as Vince Gill, Marty Stuart, Ricky Skaggs, Stuart Duncan and Roy Huskey Jr., all carrying acoustic instruments, huddled around a microphone. They did a great version of “Working On A Building”, then were joined by Emmylou Harris, long a passionate Monroe advocate herself, who did a superb, heartfelt rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger”. It was a stunning performance, but at the end, because of the circumstances, no one clapped or even moved. It seemed appropriate, but must have felt strange onstage.
Monroe’s presence always commanded respect, and even in death, his dignity dominated the building. A pastor then gave the first eulogy and prayer and convincingly spoke of how serious and committed Monroe was to his faith. The minister also gave everyone ample opportunity to consider his or her own mortality, quoting lyrics to “What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul”.
When Gill, Stuart and Skaggs returned to the stage, they were accompanied by a sad-looking Ralph Stanley, now the elder statesman of bluegrass. They did “Rank Stranger” with Stanley’s tenor cutting through the Ryman like a knife. They also did “A Beautiful Life”, with Stanley’s voice soaring and blending in with Gill and Skaggs and Stuart. Alison Krauss joined the quartet for a version of “Angel Band”. A performance this sublime by such a stellar lineup in a hall like this would ordinarily be followed by deafening applause. But again, was met with total silence.
Connie Smith, who Roy Acuff used to introduce as “The Cinderella of the Grand Ole Opry”, came out and mesmerized everyone. Her ageless beauty vividly apparent, she kept the crowd absolutely transfixed with a riveting version of “How Great Thou Art”, her voice soaring against the acoustic accompaniment. When she hit the final, transcendent note, everyone sat in stunned silence, and then everyone seemed to explode into applause at the exact same moment. It was one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever seen, period.
After Smith sang, the service became far less solemn.
Roger Rush, Monroe’s pastor for the last few years at the Holiday Heights Church in Hendersonville, then told some great stories about the artist’s perseverance and courage in the face of sickness and death. These remarks also illustrated Monroe’s unusual sense of humor.
Vince Gill then joined Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless for a beautiful version of Gill’s latest hit, “Go Rest High On That Mountain”. The song worked not only as an homage to the high lonesome sound Monroe pioneered, but as a reminder that there are still great songs being written and performed which effectively evoke the timeless feel of classic country music.
It was a reaffirming and awesome performance which was supposed to be the end of the service. But Marty Stuart whispered into Ricky Skaggs’ ear, and they both grinned like schoolboys. Skaggs said, “I hope you all don’t think this is disrespectful — if you do take offense, we’re sorry. Just pray about it on the way home and get over it.” Then he pointed his mandolin at Marty Stuart and they launched into a blistering version of Monroe’s classic instrumental, “Rawhide”. It’s easy to forget what Monroe believers Gill, Skaggs and Stuart — three of the greatest players in Guitar Town — are, and they jubilantly milked this moment for all it was worth. As if they had performed the piece together 100 times, they brought it to a precise ending.
It was probably the moment Monroe would have cherished the most. Stuart sensed that as he bowed toward the coffin where his mentor lay and, with an outstretched arm and loving smile on his face, said, simply, “Bill Monroe”, as whoops and hollers and joyous applause filled the auditorium for several minutes.
Then came the faint sound of bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace”, gradually growing louder as a bagpipe ensemble approached from the back of the auditorium. A Scottish band marched up to the casket and circled it as the pallbearers walked down the aisle and out the back door.
The scene outside was dreamlike. Bagpipe music echoed down the Ryman alley as the casket was loaded into the hearse. As inside, no one spoke a word. Then a police motorcade of motorcycles broke the silence as it fell into formation to escort the body to the final resting place in Monroe’s hometown of Rosine, Kentucky.
It was beginning to sink in on everyone, as the hearse made its way down the alley and turned the corner, that this was the last time we would ever see Bill Monroe. I kept thinking of the line from the Carter Family classic, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”: “I told that undertaker/Undertaker please drive slow/’Cause this lady that you’re haulin’/Lord, I hate to see her go.”
As I was leaving, I saw Little Jimmy Dickens walking down the sidewalk alone. He stopped for a minute, the Ryman backdropping him, and looked up at a massive steel and concrete arena now under construction nearby. With tears still running down his cheeks, he shook his head and started walking, staring straight down at the sidewalk. I wondered if he was thinking the world already seemed a little more lonesome without Bill Monroe in it.