Sunday, August 27, 2000
An entertaining, forthright biography of the father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe.
By David Royko
David Royko is a clinical psychologist, an author, a musician and, as a freelance writer on music, a regular contributer to the Tribune.
CAN'T YOU HEAR ME CALLIN': The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass
By Richard D. Smith. Little, Brown, 365 pages, $25.95
Richard D. Smith describes the childhood of Bill Monroe, born in 1911 and destined to become the father of bluegrass music, as one that took place in a 19th Century world, "surrounded by ancient folkways that had survived among settlers of the southern hills."
One element of that world that still survives, at least barely, is the delineation between public and private, and this has been reflected in virtually all previous writings on bluegrass. For example, Northwestern University professor John Wright's 1994 book, "Traveling the High Way Home: Ralph Stanley and the World of Traditional Bluegrass Music," contains a harrowing description of the death of Carter Stanley, the other half of the Stanley Brothers, from "his illness." The word "alcoholism," the cause of Carter's fatal liver ailment, never appears.
I asked Wright about this omission, and it came down to respect for privacy. Specifying alcoholism was ultimately considered "unnecessary." What was left unsaid describes the rural Southern culture nearly as well as what Wright did include.
Smith leaves far less unsaid, and so we now know that Monroe, an icon of traditional music and, by extension, traditional values, was a world-class philanderer with a vast sexual appetite, could be a horribly neglectful and insensitive parent, and secretly fathered a child out of wedlock.
In pop music, such revelations would be worth half a yawn. In the world of bluegrass, they are a very big deal. These disclosures could have been nothing more than smarmy, sensational sleaze if Smith did not make such a strong case, based on solid research, that these many extramarital affairs, and the joys and angst that came with them, were tightly woven into the musical, as well as psychological, fabric of Monroe's life.
Smith unblinkingly views Monroe's imperfections of personality as the often-hurtful flaws they were. At the same time, he places them into a psychological and historical context. Smith's moments of being an armchair shrink are not bothersome because the points he makes are never a stretch. Monroe's lifelong womanizing, his extreme negative reactions to band members' striking out on their own, his supermacho work ethic, his need to be in control all fit with what Smith writes about Monroe's early family life.
Monroe's childhood was one of severe loneliness. He was, in essence, the runt of the litter who lost both parents at a young age. He suffered from a visual handicap in a time and place (Rosine, Ky.) and under such economic circumstances that medical treatment for it had to wait until he was a young adult. Given all that, Monroe's adult insecurities make sense. So, too, do his musical drive and single-mindedness, and his almost paranoiac sense of ownership over what he worked hard to create.
Besides drawing from a wide range of archival source material, Smith conducted extensive interviews with people who were important in Monroe's personal and professional life, ultimately going where no writer has gone before--to the women. The tale of Monroe's illegitimate child is only the juiciest tidbit. To Smith's credit, instead of presenting her for titillation, her existence is one example of how a clandestine event in Monroe's life would be sublimated into brilliant music--this time, his classic song "My Little Georgia Rose."
The music world would reap many such dividends from troubled aspects of Monroe's life, ultimately making up a sizable chunk of his oeuvre. Dubbed "true songs," much of his greatest work--composed with an almost desperate, raw emotion brimming with deeply evocative imagery--came straight from such miseries, unvarnished and undiluted.
Monroe's songwriting, singing and revolutionary mandolin picking changed the course of popular music, especially country and rock 'n' roll. Smith draws the lines of Monroe's influences, beginning with his earliest recordings as half of the Monroe Brothers (currently being reissued on CD by Rounder), with accuracy and a refreshing lack of hyperbole. The musicologist as well as the general reader can thus observe how Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, among others, were touched, and sometimes transformed, by Monroe's genius. Even Deadheads owe their officially sanctioned Grateful Dead tape collections to Monroe's bluegrass scene and his willingness to let fans record his shows, an attitude noted by Jerry Garcia in his pre-Dead bluegrass days.
One of Smith's strengths is an ability to describe musical qualities in a manner valuable to musicians and non-players alike. Rarely does the book read like an academic treatise, but when Smith does momentarily reach for semi-technical explanations, he unfailingly caps them off with a rich metaphor, such as: "The wonder, indeed the miracle, of `Scruggs-style' banjo picking is that amidst a shower of sound--usually two or three accompanying notes for every melody note--the main theme clearly registers on the listener's ear, like the raised image on a beautifully cast silver box still stands out to the eye even if rain pours upon it." Lines like that entice one to seek out and discover--or rediscover--the recordings themselves.
With "Can't You Hear Me Callin'," Smith, whose writings on music stretch back to the 1960s and include "Bluegrass: An Informal Guide" (1995), has produced a biography both exhaustive and entertaining, honoring the remarkable story that was Monroe's life, which ended in 1996. His subject did what no other individual--not Louis Armstrong, Elvis or Bach--has done: invented an entire genre of music.
Perhaps most impressively, Smith manages to humanize Monroe, detailing his personality and behavior, from the miraculous to the shameful, while in no way diminishing the gigantic, almost mythological aura of the musician nicknamed "Big Mon," leaving the reader intrigued by the reality and awed by the accomplishment.
[Photo caption: Bill Monroe's songwriting, singing and mandolin picking changed the course of popular music. Tribune file photo.]
[Photo caption: Bill Monroe (standing) with his band, the Bluegrass Boys--Chubby Wise, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Birch Monroe. Tribune file photo.]