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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

personality.

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

string-band

music, mixed in a dash of the blues, and transformed it into a new

"bluegrass" form.

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

Jersey

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,

"but

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

inspiration.

"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

Guide,"

the Monroe biography represents three years’ effort. Pairing his

professional

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

commercial

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

intellectuals.

Smith says Monroe was welcoming toward the odd assortment of

long-haired

fans and musicians who sought him out in the ’60s. "He was

surprised

that they were interested in his music — and by what good

musicians

they were."

Among these folklorists was Ralph Rinzler, who went on to a

distinguished

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

before

Monroe." Tapes of Rinzler’s interviews with Monroe, used by Smith

to tell Monroe’s story, are in the Smithsonian’s Folklife Division

archives.

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

daughter.

"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

singer-songwriter movement."

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

stories."

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

American

pop music."

— Nicole Plett

Richard D. Smith, Barnes & Noble, Route 1 South,

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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