The Danger of Genius: Bill Monroe and Tony Rice
Genius has within it the seeds of its own destruction. Bill Monroe labored for years to find and develop a musical sound he heard in his head. He experimented throughout his sojourn in the industrial necklace around the Great Lakes with combinations of instruments, tempos, and musical structures, restlessly seeking something he couldn’t quite find. He and his brother Charlie toured, played together, fought, and finally separated. He joined the Grand Old Opry, becoming recognized as a star of country music.
But in 1945, Jim Shumate brought Earl Scruggs to an audition, and Monroe heard it. He heard the fast-paced, rolling sound of the banjo creating a new syncopation — a new conception of how the instrument should and could sound — and he added it to his band. Monroe knew he had found “it,” and bluegrass music was born.
Today, many people see that period as the Golden Age of bluegrass, and bands across the country try to emulate it, copy it, capture and bottle it, doing exactly the same renditions as those made into hits by Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys.
When a movement called newgrass emerged, with a rock- and folk-influenced alternative sound, some embraced it as a new interpretation of what by the 1970s had become traditional music. Others rejected it as “not bluegrass,” and WIBA (which stands for What Is Bluegrass Anyway?) was born.
I’ve been reading a book called The Geography of Genius. In it, the author, Eric Weiner, embarks on a journey around the world visiting cities and eras where genius exploded and flourished for a brief period of time before dying out, as the innovation and creativity of the society dried up and blew away. Weiner discovers that, in an effort to maintain, memorialize, and institutionalize the genius of a time, the impact of innovation dies off and becomes merely a copy of a once-great idea.
In bluegrass, as in all genres of music, the winds of change in taste, technology, and fashion moved in two revolutionary directions: the brief and exciting folk music craze and the longer and broader roots and branches of rock and roll. As these two strands grew in popularity, Monroe’s career plunged, only to be revived when Elvis Presley recorded his “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in a new way. Monroe embraced it.
Monroe, then a much older and maybe even wiser man, continued to develop his striving genius. He became the first man to be enshrined in three halls of fame: bluegrass, country, and rock and roll.
In the 1970s and ’80s, it took two extraordinary bands to remind bluegrass fans of the greatness of the first generation of bluegrass musicians represented by Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers (Carter and Ralph). The Bluegrass Album Band (primarily 1980 – 1984) and the Johnson Mountain Boys (1978 – 1996) each sought to “revive” the work and the sound of these two early and hugely creative bands. Though the Johnson Mountain Boys wrote many original songs, their work sought to retain the traditions established by, particularly, the two earlier bands, representing two contrasting but related traditions.
The Bluegrass Album Band recorded five revivalist albums designed to showcase Tony Rice and traditional bluegrass. But it wasn’t truly traditional, mostly because the musicians moved way beyond the limitations traditionalists would impose on bluegrass music.
I’ve long maintained that many bluegrass fans who think of theselves as being traditionalists were never fans of Monroe or the Stanley Brothers. They were, in fact, fans of the Bluegrass Album Band and the Johnson Mountain Boys.
Here is a video from the first IBMA Awards Show in 1991, featuring the Bluegrass Album Band (Tony Rice, JD Crowe, Doyle Lawson, Bobby Hicks and Vassar Clements on twin fiddles, Jerry Douglas, and Mark Schatz) playing two “traditional bluegrass songs.” Or are they?
The poet T.S. Eliot said that the new needs the old; no artist exists in a vacuum. But that doesn’t mean that the old can, or should, restrict the new. It shouldn’t keep it from evolving, but use it as a springboard to forge into the future with vigor, and enough caution to consider its uses and value. The only way that new additions to the canon of any art form can gain a foothold and move the idea, the form, the sound forward is to pay attention to it, listen to it, consider it. Instant rejection, as in “That ain’t bluegrass,” can only doom both the new music and that which came before it to a lingering death.
The importance of Tony Rice isn’t merely that he was the greatest guitar player of his era, that he set the bar so high for those who followed him. Rather, it lay in what he added to a musical form.
Before Rice, the guitar was primarily a rhythm instrument. He took earlier guitarists who had pushed the envelope — people like Clarence White and Doc Watson — and drove the instrument and its use still further, while always also preferring to keep in touch with tradition. Listen to Sam Bush’s introduction and then Tony Rice playing his creative and explosive “Manzanita” with Darol Anger, Dan Tyminski, Barry Bales, and Jerry Douglas.
Who would eliminate this wonderful instrumental piece of genius, recorded live at Rockygrass in 2006, from the contributions and changes that go together to make up contemporary bluegrass music?
As I sit writing this on the coldest morning of this too-warm winter (zero degrees outside), I’m listening to a 101 video playlist featuring Tony Rice, compiled by Claudy Pairoux. I’m astounded that, in one performer, there seems to be the capacity to encompass groundbreaking innovation and a deep appreciation of all that went before.
All that Rice needed was to stop asking whether what he was playing was “bluegrass” and merely play the music he found within himself.
Therefore, either we can allow Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and all the others to set forever the template by which we’ll define all bluegrass music, or we can pay homage to them by playing and enjoying their music, while thanking them for creating a platform from which more great music can continue to spring.