Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life Of Bill Monroe, Father Of Bluegrass
Following the birth of the last of his eight children in September 1911, J.B. Monroe, a hard-working farmer of Rosine, Kentucky, is reported to have said to his wife, “Malissa, I wouldn’t take a thousand dollars for all of the children, but I wouldn’t give a dime for another one!”
Whatever Malissa responded is lost to history, but it’s hard to imagine she faulted J.B. the sentiment. They were no longer young — she had turned 41 that summer and he was soon to be 54 — and eight children were plenty for any couple. But it proved to be a fine thing that they didn’t stop at seven, because their last was destined to become arguably the most broadly talented and influential figure in the history of American popular music, Bill Monroe. At least that is Richard D. Smith’s argument in the first full-dress biography of the legendary Monroe. And with all due respect to the other contenders, Smith has a strong case.
Monroe was the complete package — skilled singer, virtuoso instrumentalist, gifted composer, brilliant bandleader — and it’s difficult to overestimate his influence on country music past and present, not to mention rockabilly, rock ‘n’ roll, and the folk revival. All that, and still there’s an ace in the hole. Bill Monroe was, Smith claims, “the only person to create — not just dominate but wholly create — a distinctive musical genre.” Smith has the details, but it’s an impressive resume even in broad brush.
In a 1959 Esquire article, Alan Lomax called bluegrass “folk music with overdrive,” a phrase as misleading as it is catchy. Turn an ear to Monroe’s oeuvre and you’ll find much of it, and much of the best of it, at a tempo something less than overdrive. And among the myths Smith hopes to lay to final rest is that bluegrass is a direct descendant of traditional Appalachian folk music.
Monroe’s music owed as much to hillbilly stringbands, blues (as with many other white musicians before and after, some of Monroe’s early education came at the hands of a bluesman, in his case the obscure but reputedly gifted guitarist Arnold Shultz), jazz, swing, and the church as it did to folk traditions. Monroe’s genius lay in the ways he recombined elements from multiple sources to create a whole new sound.
Monroe began life a lonesome, crosseyed kid, and ended it a revered living legend. In between he was by turns a strapping young man, a cocky innovator, a withdrawn has-been, and a triumphant senior statesman. If Smith occasionally slips into the same sort of deification he otherwise documents (“his utterances are retained in memory as vividly as if they had been spoken last week”), he generally reveals a man made from the same frail clay as the rest of us, a man whose contradictions matched his massive talents.
Monroe could be arrogant, cheap, tyrannical and rude, at least when he wasn’t being gracious, generous, nurturing, amiable and otherwise the perfect Christian gentleman. That he was a first-class feuder and could hold a grudge with the mightiest of men is no news, but that he was a compulsive skirt-chaser is. His countless girlfriends cost him three wives, and earned him an ice pick in the leg from the first. He may have been a musical giant, but he was every inch a mere mortal.