A band mate recalls the life of Bill Monroe (1911-1996), perhaps the best-known popularizer of bluegrass in American musical history.
Guitar, mandolin, banjo, stand-up bass, and a high-lonesome yowl: Those are the classic elements of bluegrass, codified by the man from Kentucky. As so often happened, that highly stylized variant of country music was the product of the big city, courtesy of a Chicago-based radio program that propelled Monroe to early fame. Ewing (editor: The Bill Monroe Reader, 2000), who played guitar with Monroe for a decade, serves up a cognoscenti’s deep-dish version of bluegrass history that is not for the uninitiated: He writes in a typical passage of an influential forerunner of Monroe’s “who owned and played a snakehead A-4 (but who usually picked a mandola or tenor banjo) and whose musicianship and style had a definite impact on Bill.” If you don’t know that a Snakehead A-4 was a kind of mandolin made by Gibson in the 1920s, then you’ll be forgiven for being a little lost—but this is the kind of book whose readers will have command over the bluegrass arsenal. Without saying as much, the author shows how Monroe pioneered the festival circuit, jump-starting the famed Brown County Jamboree in Indiana. Though a purist in many ways, Monroe was also a pioneer of modern technology, perhaps the first major bluegrass musician to record digitally (“you can do several takes in a row and combine the best parts of each performance later,” explained his producer). Ewing also offers casual, unlabored portraits of other key players in the bluegrass scene who admired one another while nursing deeply competitive streaks, as when Monroe expressed some pique when the music magazine Sing Out! dubbed Earl Scruggs “the undisputed master of Bluegrass music.” That Monroe’s is a household name among roots-oriented country fans speaks to his endless touring, recording, and self-promotion, helped along by a battery of fine players.
Fans of bluegrass and old-school country will enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at Monroe’s storied career.