“Don’t flowery it up too much,” Bill Monroe was known to say. “Boy, you got to chase that melody like a foxhound.” Not one to mince words (or notes), Monroe would readily dispense with the filigree and give it to you straight as a mandolinist and as a man. And had the Father of Bluegrass been a literary critic, he would have loved Gregory Spatz’s elegantly understated novel Fiddler’s Dream.
The chapters of Fiddler’s Dream are named as chords, and the emerging relationships between them suggest we should read for separate narrative cadences, or listen to distinct, intertwining melodies.
Spatz’s hero, a young fiddler from the northeast named Jesse Allison, travels to Nashville in pursuit of two elusive paternal shades — his no-account songwriter father and the Big Mon himself. But upon arriving in Music City, Jesse finds that Monroe has suffered a heart attack and may not play again; his father has skipped town with yet another woman. The emergent impossibility of these two dreams becomes the focused momentum of the book, and Jesse’s realization of what is unattainable becomes the condition of his majority — though he will chase both men to the end.
Musicians will find an easy complicity with Spatz’s descriptions of artistic growth and the ever-complicated love affair with music. Spatz, like Jesse, worked as a fiddler in Nashville; he currently plays with John Reischman & the Jaybirds. This biographical tidbit bolsters the already prevailing urge to read Fiddler’s Dream as Spatz’s musical memoir (it is at the least the first true bluegrass Kunstlerroman).
There is a good deal of nudge-wink insider references here — characters joke about Jimmy Martin’s drinking and Monroe’s womanizing, and we meet thinly veiled fictional versions of a whole passel of familiar Nashville cats (e.g. Mike Compton, Alan O’Bryant, Mark Schatz, and a mouthy, overtalented young fiddler named Duncan Haines — not Stuart Duncan).
But this is no tabloid flash; the allusions add dimension and humor to a deeply held, delicately conveyed personal narrative that could well be a faithful document of Spatz’s own life in, and out of, bluegrass. Ultimately the biographical quandary is moot, but the personal resonances for the author are all the more poignant: It is the book’s great triumph (and Spatz’s unique achievement as a fiddler/writer) that the precise, unintrusive writing style simultaneously mimics and pays homage to the music which is its subject.