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Prepared for the September 5, 2000 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper.
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Bluegrass: Rock Forebear — Richard Smith on Bill Monroe
It’s hard to believe that bluegrass — the music
loved for its lonesome vocal harmonies, driving beat, and bouquet
of breakneck virtuosity — could be the product of a single
Many consider it the fruit of a people, a place, and their traditions.
But if there’s one name that unites music lovers of every shade of
bluegrass, it’s Bill Monroe’s.
Born in Rosine, Kentucky, in 1911, Monroe was a bandleader, a singer,
and a mandolin virtuoso. Beginning in the 1930s, he took rural
music, mixed in a dash of the blues, and transformed it into a new
Rocky Hill author Richard D. Smith has just published the first full
biography of Monroe, "Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill
Monroe, Father of Bluegrass" (Little, Brown & Co.). A celebration
and book signing that includes a touch of bluegrass, takes place at
Barnes & Noble, MarketFair, on Thursday, September 7 at 7 p.m. Smith
will play guitar and sing, along with Dan Marcus, a banjo player he
has known since his college days. Joining them will be South New
friends Vic D’Amico on mandolin and fiddle, and Randy Bailey on bass.
Monroe was the eighth and youngest child of a Kentucky farm family.
"He wanted to play fiddle and guitar," explains Smith,
his two older brothers had taken those instruments and he was left
with the mandolin," he says. "But Monroe went on to make the
mandolin a much more powerful solo and rhythm instruments than it
had ever been."
"Monroe had a tremendously broad influence," he continues,
noting that Monroe’s signature song, "Blue Moon of Kentucky,"
was one of the first songs Elvis Presley recorded. "He was a major
figure in bluegrass, folk and country music, and a seminal influence
in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. The early rockabillys were combining
`hillbilly’ music with rhythm and blues, and Bill Monroe was their
favorite hillbilly singer." Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, and Jerry
Garcia are among the legions of pop artists who credit Monroe as an
"Monroe named his Blue Grass Boys after the bluegrass state of
Kentucky," says Smith. "He really was, in many ways, calling
out throughout his life, and he was finally heard." Supported
by a late-blooming circuit of bluegrass festivals, Monroe stayed on
the road until 1996, the year of his death.
For Smith, who is also author of "Bluegrass: An Informal
the Monroe biography represents three years’ effort. Pairing his
and musical interests has proved a good match.
Smith heard his first Bill Monroe record in 1965 and
went to hear him performing in person the following year at a music
festival in Warrenton, Virginia. "There was something about Bill
Monroe’s sound that was exciting but even more primal — it seemed
both polished and very raw. There was something to his music that
was so powerfully authentic and closer to its roots," he says.
Monroe began recording with his brothers in 1936 for RCA Victor, an
association that lasted just two years before he went out on his own.
By 1945, his Blue Grass Boys featured sidemen Lester Flatt on vocals
and guitar, and Earl Scruggs on banjo. When the two left Monroe, they
were widely successful in popularizing the bluegrass sound. The
onslaught of country and rock was not kind to bluegrass. Fortunately
for today’s listeners, they were "discovered" and revived
in the 1960s by a new generation of Northern folklorists and
Smith says Monroe was welcoming toward the odd assortment of
fans and musicians who sought him out in the ’60s. "He was
that they were interested in his music — and by what good
Among these folklorists was Ralph Rinzler, who went on to a
career at the Smithsonian. Rinzler helped revive Monroe’s career in
the mid-1960s. "Rinzler wanted to do a biography of Monroe,"
says Smith, "but other projects interfered, and Rinzler died
Monroe." Tapes of Rinzler’s interviews with Monroe, used by Smith
to tell Monroe’s story, are in the Smithsonian’s Folklife Division
Smith’s title, "Can’t You Hear Me Callin’" comes from Monroe’s
song of the same name, "a monumental love song, a masterpiece
of passion and pathos." Monroe wrote it for Bessie Lee Mauldin,
a woman who was not his wife but who played bass with the band, was
his long-time companion, and with whom he had an out-of-wedlock
"For me the crucial breakthrough was in interviewing the women
in Bill Monroe’s life, who had been ignored by musicologists up to
this point," says Smith. "They knew a great deal about his
life and the writing of his songs. I had tremendous cooperation from
these women. Monroe really is one of the great pioneers of today’s
In a New York Times review (August 10), Jon Pareles praises the book
as a "meticulously researched and footnoted biography, intent
on straightening out chronologies and pinning down apocryphal
Smith was raised in Montgomery Township, the son of the president
of the Smith Pharmacal company. He graduated from Emerson College
in 1975. His first media job was with New Jersey Public Television;
he has also worked on staff at U.S. 1 and as a freelance writer for
the New York Times. Smith can be heard on National Public Radio’s
"All Things Considered" on Monday, September 11.
Despite having had to live with his subject intensely for three years,
Smith’s enthusiasm for Monroe remains strikingly fresh.
"This man’s life genuinely had a plot. I didn’t have to make one
up," he explains cheerfully. "It has a difficult childhood,
it has rises and falls, struggles and love affairs. And it ends with
a final triumph when he was recognized as one of the giants of
— Nicole Plett
609-897-9250. Booksigning and bluegrass music for "Can’t You Hear
Me Callin’". Free. Thursday, September 7, 7 p.m.
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