Richey on Ewing, 'The Bill Monroe Reader'

Tom Ewing, ed.
E. Duke Richey

Tom Ewing, ed. The Bill Monroe Reader. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006. xi + 301 pp. $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-07399-1.

Reviewed by E. Duke Richey (Department of History, Pacific Lutheran University) Published on H-Southern-Music (November, 2007)

How Yankees Reinvented Bluegrass

In one of the documents toward the end of this collection of newspaper and magazine articles, liner notes, interviews, memoirs, and other materials, a reporter for the New York Times wrote about a day in 1994 when he visited an elderly William Smith Monroe (Bill Monroe), the father of bluegrass, at his farm in Tennessee. After mentioning to the young visitor that the walkway to his log cabin home included a stone from each state, the visitor replied, "Really?" Monroe "snapped," as the reporter put it, with "Why should I lie? I ain't a Yankee" (p. 222).

Although the Bill Monroe Reader is a collection of primary documents without much in the way of an introduction, with no conclusion whatsoever, and as with most primary document collections, without any explicit argument set forth by the editor, one prevailing theme emerges quickly. Bluegrass music and the popularity of Monroe, the inventor of the genre, survived after Elvis Presley and the rock and roll explosion only when in the late 1950s and 1960s northern, or "Yankee" folk music fans, musicians, and promoters began listening to, writing about, playing (a number of them in Monroe's band), and generally clamoring for roots music and the authenticity that someone like Monroe provided. And therein lay a palpable tension for the mandolin virtuoso during the remaining three decades of his life. Shy since childhood, relatively uneducated, and country, as southerners say when we need an adjective to describe a certain type, Monroe might have accepted the reinvention of bluegrass as its popularity moved from the Ryman Auditorium to Greenwich Village and later to far-flung new meccas like Telluride, Colorado, but that did not mean that he was altogether comfortable with each and every one of the changes those journeys wrought. Namely, he never seemed terribly thrilled to talk with reporters and scholars about anything other than his music. And in 1994, a year in which bad investments forced Monroe to auction away his 288-acre farm (the new owner allowed him to remain living there until his death two years later), Monroe knew why the New York Times had come calling. They were less interested in a story about the high lonesome sound than in the old-fashioned character they painted as a laid-low and lonesome octogenarian. Indeed, as the editor of this collection Tom Ewing notes regarding the New York Times piece "Bill Monroe Has Lots to Sing But Little to Say," it was a "less-than-flattering article" (p. 226).

This book was not published for the merely casual bluegrass fan or for someone looking to learn the basic story of Monroe and the unique American music he forged in the last century. For the invention of bluegrass as a genre, including a discussion of the nonsouthern influences from the Seeger family to Jerry Garcia, Robert Cantwell's Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound (1984) and Neil Rosenberg's Bluegrass: A History (1985) are required reading. Two films, High Lonesome: The Story of Bluegrass Music (1991) and Bill Monroe: The Father of Bluegrass (1993), are excellent in dissecting the origins of bluegrass and why it matters in American popular culture. Finally, Richard D. Smith's biography Can't You Hear Me Callin': The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass (2000) is so comprehensive that it is hard to imagine Ewing's anthology as being completely clear if one had not read Smith first and had a good idea of Monroe's complexities as a musician and as a man. Ewing, a guitarist who played in Monroe's band for ten years, knows this. He nearly states as much in his introduction, where he writes that "some knowledge of bluegrass and Bill's life and career is presumed here" (p. 4). In other words, the Bill Monroe Reader is not Bill Monroe and Bluegrass 101; it is a senior seminar taught by a masterful musician who knew Monroe well.

To get the most out of Ewing's collection, readers should first understand the history of bluegrass and Monroe's story. He grew up poor in rural Kentucky in the 1910s and 1920s, was orphaned at a young age, and lived with a fiddle-playing relative called Uncle Pen. During the 1930s, he moved North to Chicago to labor in an oil refinery. He recorded and performed with his brother Charlie before striking out on his own and forming a band, Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys. In 1939, he made his way to the heart of the musical South when he joined the Grand Ole Opry. Two of his greatest band members, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, left him and helped give rise to the term "bluegrass" in the 1950s as their audiences requested old numbers from their "Blue Grass" days with Monroe. Even Elvis's first forty-five on Sun Records included on the B side a rockabilly version of Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky." Monroe cheated on his wife and then cheated on his mistresses, too, leading to all sorts of battle scars while providing a wealth of material for songs. Finally, northern college-educated elites helped his career reach new heights, mellowing Monroe, but only to a degree, into a beloved elder statesmen in Nashville and beyond. Once one has a handle on this basic narrative, Ewing's Reader helps to peel back another two or three layers on Monroe, making this collection indispensable for serious fans and scholars of bluegrass music.

The materials in the Reader are organized by publication date. Ewing notes in the introduction that ordering the sixty-five pieces in this way allows one to "clearly see the sketchy, semi-fictional quality of the earliest writings abut Bill" (p. 3). Although this is true, and although a mythic, Bunyanesque quality about Monroe prevails through some of the final pieces included in the book, one cannot help but notice that the most important thing about the early writings is not their sketchiness, but that they were written largely for urban audiences outside of the South. The book's fifth piece, for example, is Alan Lomax's well-known 1959 article for Esquire, titled "Bluegrass Background: Folk Music in Overdrive," in which the author, one of America's great musicologists, says that Monroe invented a "bluegrass style" characterized by fast tempo playing. In light of what others learned later about Monroe's life, Lomax's analysis of the origins of bluegrass was spot on: "Finally, railroads and highways snaked into the backwoods, and mountain folk moved out into urban, industrialized, shook-up America; they were the last among us to experience the breakdown of traditional family patterns, and there ensued an endless stream of sad songs" (p. 17). For proof of how these changes played out in Monroe's life and in his music, look no further than the three songs he recorded on 3 February 1950: "My Little Georgia Rose," about a daughter born out of wedlock to his mistress; and two songs with titles that require no explanation--"I'm On My Way to the Old Home" and "I'm Blue, I'm Lonesome." Ewing also includes Ralph Rinzler's "Bill Monroe: 'The Daddy of Bluegrass Music,'" published in the journal Sing Out! in 1963. This document is one of the most important pieces, Ewing says, because it was the first to argue that Monroe played the "primary role in the development of bluegrass" (p. 26). Smith's account in Can't You Hear Me Callin' of the lengths Rinzler had to go to get this first ever in-depth interview with Monroe is worth examining. Suffice it to say, Monroe did not invite Rinzler, a native of New Jersey and a graduate of Swarthmore, down to Nashville for sweet tea. But ultimately, Monroe was nobody's fool, either. Rinzler eventually became his manager, booking him and the Blue Grass Boys at northern colleges and helping to open up a whole new fan base for Monroe than he had known previously on the dusty southern tent circuit. Since Ewing's editorial comments come at the end of each piece instead of at the beginning where they really belong, this reviewer enjoyed guessing at the origins of each document while reading it. The game provided several surprises, including the realization that the most well-written and thorough biography of Monroe in this collection appeared originally in a 1986 People magazine profile.

Some of the greatest gems, and there are many in this book, are the thoughts and recollections of people who actually picked with Monroe. It is in these stories where we see the clearest image of the man: a curmudgeonly but lovable teacher who lived and breathed to play his mandolin and to help other musicians who wanted to learn bluegrass. From the professionals, we get a priceless 1981 interview with Cleo Davis, the original Blue Grass boy, who played guitar during the fabled first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry in 1939. His description of Roy Acuff, Uncle Dave Macon, and other regulars at the Opry as "standing in the wings watching ... when they pulled the curtain on us" is unforgettable. When he described the roar of the crowd and said, "there was absolutely nobody living who had ever played with the speed that we had," the image of Monroe as someone who inadvertently helped invent rock and roll comes into focus. The rockabilly sound and the stage presence of Elvis and Buddy Holly (two young southerners who grew up listening to Monroe on the Opry) may very well have been born at that precise moment in 1939 when Monroe stepped into the light at Nashville's old War Memorial Auditorium and brandished his mandolin like a weapon (p. 137). Monroe also loved to jam with amateurs, his fans. In one of the collection's greatest pieces, an American studying in London recalls seeing Monroe play Wembley Stadium in 1975. After the show, the student grabbed his guitar from his car and made his way back to Monroe's dressing room. When he arrived, another fan, an Englishman, played Irish folk ballads on a mandolin and after each song, Monroe said, gently, "That's very good. Play me another." Finally, the man ran out of songs and Monroe looked at the American. "That's just like the guitar my brother had," he said. They played a few songs and then the Blue Grass Boys trickled in, so that the student soon found himself jamming with his heroes. "But the main thing was," he recalled years later, "Bill was playing, and singing, for himself. He didn't care about not being on stage ... He was doing his thing, playing his music" (pp. 262-263). One year later, at a festival back in the states, Monroe spotted the student and invited him on stage to play with the band. The book contains numerous stories like this whereby readers see first hand, or are reminded, why Monroe's fans adored him.

Finally, a few materials seem strangely absent from this collection. Robert Shelton's work in the New York Times, including a 1959 article that predated Lomax's Esquire piece, whereby Shelton called Monroe a "high priest" of bluegrass, might at least merit mention in a footnote. The same could be said for a 1961 article, the first to praise a young folkie named Bob Dylan, where Shelton also mentioned Rinzler's band, the Greenbriar Boys, and a "virtuoso" number they performed called "Rawhide," which Shelton may or may not have known at the time was written by Monroe and actually called "Raw Hide." The article closes with a mention of another Rinzler band number, "We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus and a Lot Less Rock 'n' Roll," which, although not written by Monroe, certainly sounds like something he might have said.[1] Another piece that might be considered for partial inclusion in an updated volume of the Reader is John W. Rumble's superb companion booklet for MCA's box set, "The Music of Bill Monroe from 1936 to 1994" (1994). The short reflections there on Monroe by Dylan, Garcia, Phil Everly, Carl Perkins, Doug Dillard, and others are fascinating. But let me be clear: Ewing's work here is excellent, and as he says early on, with a project such as this, picking and choosing is never easy. What he has offered--the ability to read Bill Monroe--is a special gift. Although Monroe's actual voice is heard easily today on records and in films, to read about him saying such things as, "One thing that he learnt me" (p. 48), or "I would sing kindly the way I felt" (p. 77), or "Anybody don't know better's pitiful" (p. 224) is to recognize not just that Monroe's mannerisms became folk's lyrical cool, but that in these lovely, humble ways of speaking we can also hear, some of us, the voices of our own southern grandparents who helped teach us to love this music in the first place. To quote Dylan, who, of course, came from Minnesota and did not have southern grandparents, but who had a radio, a record store, and folkie magazines: "The stuff that I grew up on never grows old. I was just fortunate enough to get it and understand it at that early age, and it still rings true for me. I'd still rather listen to Bill and Charlie Monroe than any current record. That's what America's all about to me."[2]


[1]. Robert Shelton, "Bluegrass Style," New York Times, 30 August 1959, sec. X, 17, and Robert Shelton, "Bob Dylan: A Distinctive Folk-Song Stylist," New York Times, 29 September 1961, 31.

[2]. John W. Rumble, The Music of Bill Monroe from 1936 to 1994 (Nashville: Country Music Foundation, 1994), 20.

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