The Bill Monroe Reader
This homage to Bill Monroe’s life and career, originally published in the fall of 2000, is now available in paperback. The wide-ranging collection of 65 writings spanning the years 1937-1998 includes early promotional literature from WSM and the Grand Ole Opry; standard fare from trade publications such as Sing Out!, Bluegrass Unlimited and Bluegrass Now; excerpts from liner notes; and articles from Newsweek, Esquire and The Tennessean. There’s even a posting from the internet listserv BGRASS-L.
Among the more insightful pieces are the interview transcriptions. Conversations with artists (David Grisman, Alice Gerrard), scholars (Ralph Rinzler, Charles Wolfe), and other industry insiders (George Gruhn) bear out this fact: Monroe was wholly comfortable with the title “Father of Bluegrass Music”. He spoke repeatedly of “my music” — a music he “designed”, that he “started.” In fact, given the opportunity to clarify his role as an originator, the notoriously egocentric Monroe found himself backpedaling in this exchange with radio show host Bill Rathe:
Monroe: “I hear different things in everybody’s music that I like. And if I heard something in your music and you was a jazz musician and I wanted to save it, I would save it, and you would never know it came out of your music.”
Rathe: “Do you ever find licks in jazz or music that’s not bluegrass?”
Monroe: “I don’t take nobody’s licks. I originate licks…”
Also interesting are the various writings that followed Monroe’s death in 1996. His passing obviously touched the many people who felt a close connection to him — not only his friends and fellow musicians, but also his fans and those with ties to his hometown of Rosine, Kentucky. Obituaries touted the stars of bluegrass and country music who paid their respects and performed at his memorial service at the historic Ryman Auditorium. Former Blue Grass Boys reflected fondly on time spent playing under Monroe’s tutelage. And Rosine residents noted that he put their town — and even more so, their state — on the musical map.
Though Ewing provides a glimpse of the bandleader’s darker side, suffice it to say he doesn’t explore the area as aggressively as Richard D. Smith’s biography Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life Of Bill Monroe, Father Of Bluegrass. (That publication predated Ewing’s book by a mere three months.) The author does include “Common-Law Wife Seeks Divorce from Bill Monroe”, a bizarre Nashville Banner piece that aired Bessie Lee Mauldin’s allegations of “forced concubinage”. Stranger still are charges, later dropped, that the 77-year-old Monroe assaulted an Alabama dog trainer — and possible love interest — with a large Bible. Ewing covers both incidents with little commentary.
Ultimately, however, through his liberal use of footnotes and annotations, Ewing almost emerges as a character in his own book. A current staff writer for Bluegrass Unlimited and a former Blue Grass Boy himself, Ewing proves capable of ferreting out every conceivable scrap of bluegrass errata. Earl Scruggs was 21, not 19, when he joined Monroe’s band in 1945, not 1944. The remnants of Monroe’s mandolin, shattered by vandals in 1985, were delivered to luthier Charlie Derrington in a plastic garbage bag, not a paper bag. And when a New York Times writer suggests Monroe “cultivated the image of a churchgoing patriarch,” the author editorializes: “It is doubtful that Bill ‘cultivated’ this image. He was a churchgoing patriarch.” Clearly, he was an admirer — much like the rest of us.