What I Know ’bout What I Know: The Musical Life Of An Itinerant Banjo Player
To those familiar with Butch Robins, it should come as little surprise that he had a book up his sleeve. Robins played banjo for Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys at the turn of the ’80s, and his passion for the music spilled over into several memorably astute interviews in the bluegrass press, establishing his reputation as the philosopher of the genre.
By that time, still in his 20s, Robins had built up an impressive resume as a solo recording artist and sideman for acts ranging from Jim & Jesse to Leon Russell, along with a stint in Vegas with the Harry James Band. Earlier still, as a Virginia teenager, his musical coming-of-age coincided precisely with that of the bluegrass festival circuit. In those years, he learned from, jammed with, or otherwise encountered seemingly every performer in the business.
Judging from the degree of detail he provides, Robins was a most observant observer. He looks back on his various gigs as learning experiences more than jobs, and exhibits a longstanding and remarkable willingness to stand back and contemplate the musical experience writ large. He was also that rarest of late 20th-century individuals: a diarist. Numerous excerpts from his journals contribute greatly to the book’s flavor, as do a healthy collection of interspersed photographs, most of them previously unpublished.
Because the first three decades of his life were so closely tied in with his musical calling, the early chapters work both as an informal history of bluegrass and as an autobiography. Working largely in an anecdotal mode, Robins has selected his stories well to capture his acquaintances’ personalities as much as their talents and contributions. In this way, the book fills gaps left both by scholarly works and by ever-diplomatic bluegrass magazines.
As the title implies, Robins calls them as he sees them. His memories are often affectionate, sometimes funny, and occasionally scathing. Jimmy Martin gets his, as do Hank Snow, President Jimmy Carter and other luminaries. The book is liberally peppered with tales of wild-boys-on-the-road excess — scarcely less alien to bluegrass than to rock ‘n’ roll in that era. Robins views these adventures from an older and wiser vantage, but not without due nostalgia and humor. Although it clearly wasn’t the author’s purpose to serve up Bluegrass Babylon, his frankness concerning various artists’ misbehavior (including his own) will likely become the stuff of festival campfires in years to come.
All of this will play well for the die-hards, particularly those long enough in tooth to remember pre-bluegrass banjo innovator Snuffy Jenkins or the talented but whiskey-doomed singer Charlie Moore (two early Robins employers). Those less familiar with the genre may find themselves lost, however, despite the author’s efforts to provide background.
Best advice is to soldier on through or skim the early chapters, because the book really comes into its own at the point when Robins joins the Monroe band. When the subject is the father of bluegrass, what the author knows ’bout what he knows becomes a must-read for Monroe aficionados or, for that matter, anyone generally interested in the working lives of high-order American musical originals.
If Robins’ take on Monroe is particularly acute, much may be owed to the complexities of the two musicians’ working relationship. During this period, the journal entries swing wildly between musical highs, road-weary lows and vengeful rants. Robins was a conscientious student, intent on understanding every nuance of a man he admired enormously and rightly recognized as a musical force of nature. He believed it was his role in the ensemble to “mash” musically against the leader’s playing to enhance the passionate edginess of the sound, and Monroe responded in kind.
But the day-to-day realities of his four-year stint were often troubled. Much of this was due to lifestyle frictions, chiefly Robins’ drug use, which made him a lightning rod for Monroe’s annoyance. For his own part, Monroe could be remote, ungrateful, and careless about payment. These tensions, combined with Robins’ escalating bouts with depression, contributed to a stormy departure from the band and an estrangement from Monroe that would last a decade. Fittingly enough, their eventual reconciliation set the stage for Monroe’s participation as a sideman on a Robins recording, one of Monroe’s last studio sessions.
In an ambitious and closely reasoned summing-up chapter, Robins leaves the reader with little doubt that William Smith Monroe has been at the front of his mind for more than a quarter-century. Shifting easily between history and metaphysics, he maps out a bluegrass universe whose center is occupied by Monroe surrounded by the scores of Blue Grass Boys in his employ over the decades. In so doing, he takes on those who would give Earl Scruggs claim to co-creatorship of the genre, and does so with force and clarity unsurpassed by any of the many who have weighed in on either side of Bluegrass Religious War #1. His arguments may or may not change minds, but those who would choose to debate him on the topic do so at their own peril.
Altogether, this is an auspicious first-ever book-length memoir by a bluegrass musician. But it is not without its flaws. Robins is an engaging storyteller with a keen intellect and an excellent command of both his subject matter and the language, but the book did not receive anywhere near the amount of proofreading it needed. Typos, particularly misspelled artist names, leap off the page. The book’s flow could have been improved by an editor’s touch, weeding out a few stories that go nowhere and name-checks that serve no apparent purpose, along with the author’s overuse of parentheses and parentheses-within-parentheses.
That said, What I Know ‘Bout What I Know belongs, alongside works by Neil Rosenberg and Robert Cantwell, on any short list of indispensable works about bluegrass music.