The first lines of Tom Ewing’s Bill Monroe – the Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man are instructive: “This book is not necessarily a biography,” he writes. “it is … a chronicle, documenting many of the most important events involving, or relating to, Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass music.” Ewing expresses his hope that his commentary will provide insights that allow us, in effect, to produce our own biographies not only of this “extraordinary individual,” but also of the new musical genre he created and nurtured.
Bluegrass. In late September this year, thousands of people were gathered on a warm late summer evening in downtown Raleigh, NC, to listen to bluegrass bands. At the World of Bluegrass mega-festival, many of the biggest names in the business were on stage (actually, multiple stages). On street corners and in the public spaces at the Convention Center or Marriott Hotel, you only had to walk a few steps to find an impromptu band. Whether it was a band that plays together regularly or a pick-up group that hadn’t had time to introduce themselves to each other, they shared a common musical language, playing with skill and enthusiasm, showing off their hottest licks and folding their voices into close three-part harmony. They were playing Bill Monroe’s music.
Sure, the banjo player was playing in a style popularized by Earl Scruggs. Maybe the mandolin player was influenced more by Sam Bush. Maybe the song they were playing came from the repertoire of the Grateful Dead. But they’re all part of Bill Monroe’s legacy. Others have written about what makes the bluegrass sound – the acoustic instruments, the driving beat, the jazz-like ensemble-then-solo structure, the gospel-tinged harmony singing, the flatted-seventh echoes of the blues incorporated into string band music. In large part it’s a product of a natural evolution of the cultural cross-currents of the rural south in the 1930s and 40s, amplified and spread by radio and recordings. But bluegrass is still a music whose birth can be traced to the singular vision of a gifted and complicated man who knew he sound he wanted and drove others to play it his way.
Ewing’s book is chronological, its large chapters covering decades, subdivided into episodes. Its sheer bulk is daunting at first – nearly 500 pages, with another hundred pages of notes and index. We learn about Monroe’s background, his family (going back to their roots in colonial America), the rural Kentucky world where he was born and raised, his musical influences. The narrative is provided by quotes from people who knew him and played with him, from his early success in a duet with his brother Charlie, through the breakthrough “classic” 1946 band of Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise and Cedric Rainwater, and the career that followed for the next 50 years. At some point the reader may wish for a chart to keep track of all the people who moved into and out of Monroe’s band. In a day when bluegrass bands tend to stay together, and when most of them don’t have an up-front band leader, it’s a revelation to read about Monroe picking up band members for a road trip, auditioning new band members backstage at the Opry, bringing a young player onto the Opry stage to sing but not play an instrument because he didn’t have a union card. For much of Monroe’s career, musicians were attracted to his band as a credential: If you wanted to say you played bluegrass, you needed to spend some time as a Blue Grass Boy.
For a lot of them, it was music school. Bill Monroe insisted on playing things his way, and band members adapted to his preferences for timing and phrasing. They’d play what was needed – fiddlers would switch to guitar or banjo or bass and back again – but Bill Monroe, with his aggressive mandolin playing and powerful tenor, was always the towering presence. We read about his struggles and triumphs, the many women who were drawn to him, the tent shows and baseball teams and later the festivals, college tours and international fame.
Ewing, who first heard Monroe at age 16 in the 1960s, joined the band in 1986 and played with them until the end, writes himself into the narrative at the appropriate times, but in the third person. It’s a little off-putting at first, but it fits with the flow of the book: He’s just another Blue Grass Boy, one of the nearly 150 who played in Monroe’s band (Ewing’s roll call of Blue Grass Boys is in an appendix).
If you’re looking for an analytical view of Monroe and bluegrass music, you’ll have to provide it yourself. And in the end that’s the real success of this remarkable book. It’s a definitive work, one that’s sure to be an indispensible source for future writers. And one that will enable all of us to create our own personal biographies of Bill Monroe.
The best biography, of course, is the music, played with spirit and joy all over the world. “Bluegrass music is a wonderful thing,” Ewing quotes Monroe as saying. “If you play it right, people know you got your heart in it.”
– Dan Shipp, bluegrasscountry.org