Mostly True Story in Honor of Bill Monroe’s 10oth Birthday
I Shook the Hand of Bill Monroe
When Bill Monroe pulled into Gateway Center, the heart of downtown Pittsburgh, on a hot summer afternoon, his long sleek custom bus was greeted by a crowd of about seventy devotees. Most had been waiting all morning.
Now, if you don’t know who Bill Monroe is, then I’m not surprised but I’m disappointed. It’s equivalent to not being familiar with Louie Armstrong, Bennie Goodman, Charlie Parker, Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry or Hank Williams–all musical giants who created a distinct brand of American-born music.
Bill essentially invented bluegrass, the music that emerges for a heartbeat in American popular culture once every fifteen years before fading back into musical obscurity. The Beverly Hillbillies theme song – that’s bluegrass. The chase music in the movie Bonnie and Clyde – bluegrass. The theme song from Deliverance – bluegrass, And most recently most of the music from the Coen Brothers movie, O Brother Where Art Thou – lots and lots of bluegrass.
In a nutshell, what Bill had done in the 40s was take old-time string band music, raise the keys, push the tempos and add the secret ingredient, Earl Scrugg’s mastery of a three-finger rolling picking style on the resonator banjo. Adding Earl was like discovering how to harness the atom. The drive of his banjo supercharged the band and made the musical form totally unique. Bill took old country, Appalachian songs, blues and classic hillbilly duets, gospel, original songs and applied his new bluegrass formula. It became his signature sound–that is, until a thousand other bluegrass bands sprang up almost overnight, trying to replicate what Bill had invented.
In the South, Bill was pretty much anointed The Godfather of Bluegrass Music and got a lot of exposure through his frequent appearances on the Grand Ole Opry. In American Popular Culture, however, his thunder was soon usurped by his former sidemen, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, who left Bill in 1948 and within months joined forces to become the most recognizable bluegrass band on the planet by creating the Beverly Hillbillies theme song, making appearances on the show and creating the music for the hit movie, Bonnie and Clyde.
Bill toiled in their shadow during the 50s and 60s, but with the popularity of bluegrass festivals and the international spread of the style, Bill had become “The Man” again around the late 60s. His arrival to headline “Bluegrass Night” at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Arts Festival in June of 1981 was a pretty huge deal even if you didn’t have a clue who Bill Monroe was.
Bill had grown up a shy, cross-eyed, portly kid, but after his eyes were surgically repaired, he slimmed down, his face aged handsomely and his hair turned a luminous shade of white. When he stepped off his bus on that hot June afternoon in a white linen suit, Tony Lama cowboy boots, white Stetson hat with his white hair flowing and granite profile uplifted, it was like he already deserved a place on Mount Rushmore, or traveling on a World Tour with Jesus roadying, keeping Bill’s famous Gibson Lloyd Loar mandolin in perfect condition.
Now I have to confess, I had not been a big fan of the Godfather at the time. I’d always felt his voice a bit shrill and lacking in tonality, his playing a bit rough-hewn and heavy-handed and his onstage presence a bit formal and haughty. Though I played, wrote and sang in a more modern bluegrass form, I still deeply enjoyed traditional artists, but when I listened I preferred the darker mournful sound of The Stanley Brothers or the fire-cracking style of Jimmy Martin. Still, I was there to welcome Bill to the ‘burgh and to pay homage to him. Our band, The Dog Run Boys, was scheduled to open for Bill and I was stoked about playing on the same bill and experiencing Bill live.
For those who aren’t familiar with the Three Rivers Arts Festival, it started in 1959 with an emphasis on art. By 1981, it had become a confluence of art, music, crafts, deep fried food and cheap beer that occupied the Golden Triangle section of downtown Pittsburgh for two weeks in early June. It wasn’t quite on the same level as a tractor pull or Nascar Event yet– The Three Rivers Regatta held over the July 4th weekend had the corner on that market–but it was clearly devolving year by year.
The giant elephant in the Golden Triangle was the Three Rivers Curse– bad, bad weather. It was not quite as bad as Moses and God’s ten plagues beset on the Egyptians but it was of Biblical proportions: monsoon-like rains that shot over the Fort Pitt Tunnel into the Golden Triangle like a geyser, twisters, blistering heat spells, golf ball-sized hail, and non-aqueous showers with dead Wild Turkeys falling from the sky. OK, I made the last part up. But it could happen at a future Festival.
Nobody was thinking of even the possibility of inclement weather as Bill mingled with the tanned crowd and stretched his long legs under a bright sun and a cloudless deep blue sky. All the Pittsburgh weathermen beamed that morning, pointing at green screens keyed with clear maps of yellow sun characters wearing sunglasses and holding boxes that read “High of 85 degrees.”
Bill, a notorious lothario, was shortly joined by a buxom, fortyish bouffanted blonde in a polka dot dress and heels who accompanied him through the heart of Gateway Center, dominated by the pre-fabricated stage, and the three matching brushed aluminum Art Deco skyscrapers, built during Pittsburgh’s first downtown Renaissance in the early 50s. She wrapped her right arm around the crook of Bill’s left arm and they strolled through the hundreds of crafts booths, past the chain of plywood makeshift restaurants, otherwise known as Grease Alley, and down toward the tip of Point Park where they sat down by the fountain to scoop up a couple of handfuls of water to soak their necks and brows and admire the view before returning to Bill’s bus to rest before the show.
I returned around 7:30 p.m., lugging my vintage Martin guitar and fiberglass case about a quarter mile from my underground parking spot to the Gateway Center stage. The wind had become still and the sky overcast. The sound crew scurried around anxiously, setting up microphones according to our stage plot and wrapping the speakers with swaths of plastic. Bob and Bernie, two of my bandmates, were already on stage unpacking their instruments.
I felt bad for Bernie, who probably had to lug his acoustic bass as far as I had, and I could tell Bob was anxious about the weather as he kept craning his neck toward the blackening sky. Looking out from the stage, I could see Don holding his banjo case close to his body as he weaved through an elbow-to-elbow crowd.
Playing bluegrass to a large audience in 1982 was akin to a one-legged man competing in an ass-kicking contest. We didn’t have the luxury of electronic tuners and sophisticated microphones, mixers, speakers and monitors at the time, so we were always fighting with the sound system. We would tune to a key of A tuning fork or a harmonica. We usually stayed in tune for one song.
You’ve got to understand that to coax a big sound out of an acoustic instrument, with the exception of the banjo, you had to play with stout strings, high action and picks made out of tortoise shells, if you could find them. The worse the sound system, the harder you played, whacking your instrument out of tune. Plus, the key of G was the perfect key for playing bluegrass on a banjo or guitar, forcing guitarists and banjo players to constantly apply a device called a capo, letting them switch to the keys of A, B or C to maintain the sparkle and easy licks that are more easily performed in first position G. But despite advances in capo technology, using a capo forces you to retune frequently and Don and I used it about every three songs.
Some modern bluegrass players were using the first generation of acoustic pickups at the time to overcome the volume and feedback issues, but they sounded like you were playing in a huge garbage can. We just felt that was a lame way to go so we always did our best, knowing that we would never sound good in a large venue.
I joined Bernie and Bob onstage and looked up at the ominous sky.
“It doesn’t look good, Bob, does it?” I said.
“It’s the curse,” answered Bob.
“All of them,” he answered.
“Hey D,” I shouted toward Don has he climbed the narrow steps up to the stage. “You ready to show Bill how it’s done?”
“Yeah, right,” he answered.
“This could be your big break,” I teased him.
“Like I could give up Greensburg for the road,” he said. “He’ll have to make me a damn good offer.”
“Do you want the blonde or the bus?” I asked.
“I’d settle for his mandolin,” he said.
Despite his humility and shyness, Don actually had the talent to play with a top outfit. , He had an inner confidence that the rest of us lacked. He was like a Banjo Jedi. I never saw him rattled or nervous onstage. He had the chops for the big time.
I shared the set list with everyone and we made a few neurotic adjustments.
“That song’s too fast to start with.”
“I hate that song. Why do we keep playing it?”
“Well did you hate it when you wrote it?”
“I am not playing ‘Rocky Top.’ I swear if you guys kick that off, I’m leaving the stage. I’m not schticking up this set.”
Ten minutes later we had sharpied a new list and I set a copy under everyone’s vocal microphone stand.
Then we proceeded to tune and re-tune for about forty minutes until time ran out and we were forced to actually do our show. We had a huge crowd and got off to a flawless start but after four songs the sky opened and torrential rain and wind blew through the Center, tearing craft booths apart, soaking the crowd, and knocking the microphones and speakers over. We hurriedly packed up our instruments and scurried for a dry space under the eaves of the Hilton Hotel. I always knew that a Jewish kid playing Gospel tunes was going to bite me in the ass someday. Maybe this was it. In any case, The Dog Run Boys were done for the night.
The hard rain kept up for about an hour and most of the crowd packed it in until there were only about twenty die-hards, including me, hanging on to the unlikely possibility of a late performance by Bill and his Bluegrass Boys. We became hopeful when the rain slowed to a light drizzle around 10:00 p.m., but by then the PA system had been dismantled. The canvas canopy above the stage sagged about a foot in the center, swollen with rain, but it held, leaving a small square on the left of the stage dry. Bill and his Bluegrass Boys–Kenny Baker on fiddle, Wayne Lewis on guitar, Butch Robbins on banjo, Mark Hembree on the doghouse bass, and Bill gingerly cradling his famous F5 Gibson mandolin–maneuvered up the narrow aluminum stairs to the stage and set up under the dry spot. Bill’s mandolin built by Gibson’s brilliant luthier, Lloyd Loar in 1923, one of 336 made by Lloyd between 1919 and 1924 was a national treasure. The Bluegrass Boys sparkled in their matching dark suits and cowboy hats. Before you could say “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” Bill started an acoustic impromptu concert and twenty-some of us formed a tight circle around him.
I remember glancing over at Lew Sheinman, the world’s number one bluegrass fan, and I didn’t know whether he was going to split his face open from smiling so wide or faint. Bruce Mountjoy, local radio station WYEP’s stalwart bluegrass DJ, beamed like the moon. As the concert progressed, I kept inching closer and closer until I was almost inside the band’s circle so that I could hear every vocal and instrument’s tone and notes crystal clear. And within twenty minutes, I got to truly experience the greatness of Bill Monroe.
My opinion of him had been formed from watching him on television and listening to old recordings. Those media could never capture him accurately. This was the magic of the real Bill Monroe: propulsive, raw, fiery, acoustic instruments playing in perfect rhythm, complemented with hair-raising vocals that sent an electric shiver through my body. You could tell that Bill was tickled, too. The acoustics were near-perfect and he fed off the electricity of the small but mighty crowd. He knew you couldn’t replicate this sound and energy through a sound system. It was a very rare treat for everyone.
Bill smiled, he joked, he did a little clogging. He was like a kid.
Bill and the Bluegrass Boys played flawlessly for about an hour. “Working on a Building,” “Kentucky Waltz,” “Big Mon,” “Uncle Pen,” “Muleskinner,” “Rocky Road Blues,” “Wheel Hoss” in all kinds of tempos and with subtle, dynamic twists and turns. They huddled close to sing the trio and quartet choruses, listening closely to each other’s voices and breath. Then Bill finished with his most famous song, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” It was probably the best live music we were all ever going to experience, and after it was over we clapped for at least ten minutes with sheer gratitude and joy.
He thanked all of us for sticking around and then went around and shook everybody’s hand. When he approached me I said, “Mr. Monroe, that was an inspired set of music.” He gripped my hand firmly and answered, “It was pretty damned good, wasn’t it?” Then he moved on to the next person in line.
From then on, jamming, or just gossiping about bluegrass, I would never let a harsh word be spoken about the Godfather, because I shook the hand of Bill Monroe. And it was firm, it was mighty, and it was true.