• Bill Malone is Still Digging in the Roots of Country Music

    True Vine historian lending his voice to Ken Burnís Country Music documentary.

    Bill Malone
    Photo credit: Bill Graham

    On a Wednesday morning, a master country music historian who has not shortchanged the mandolin sits behind a microphone. His insight from 85 years spent living and studying the "plain people's music" flows across the airwaves weekly from WORT, an FM radio station in Madison, Wisconsin.

    "That was 'It Ain't Gonna Rain No More,' recorded by Wendall Hall in the early 1920s," says Bill Malone, tall and still spry as he leans gently toward the microphone.

    You perhaps know the song's signature line from an old R. Crumb cartoon, or from listening to a version on the children's album by David Grisman and Jerry Garcia. Malone knows the song from its hillbilly music roots, or as the title of his enlightening 2011 book about Mike Seeger suggests, Music from the True Vine.

    Bill GrahamAbout the author: Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter who has authored more than 50 feature articles for the Mandolin Cafe, most of which can be accessed in our archived News section.

    Malone is a Texas- and Louisiana-tested barroom singer, professor emeritus of history at Tulane University, and 20-year DJ in his adopted Wisconsin. But many music fans know him best as the author of Country Music USA. The book's thoroughly researched and footnoted edition was first published in 1968, an outgrowth of his master's thesis at the University of Texas in Austin. The book remains a landmark work, updated but never out of print. The University of Texas Press released a 50th edition this year with a chapter by guest author Tracey E.W. Laird about current country music. A photo of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys adorn the front cover.

    A year from now, Malone may be better known beyond the hard-core music fans who have read his books or magazine articles. Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan tapped Country Music USA as a guiding reference. He is a key on-camera interviewee for their upcoming documentary, Country Music, slated to run on PBS in 2019. Malone was among the film's sources invited early in 2018 to Burns' studio in New Hampshire to review an early cut of the film.

    Country Music USA - Bill Malone
    Photo credit: Bill Graham

    "People watching it were moved to tears," he said. "Me too. It validates my life's work."

    If you've long been passionate about music, especially early country music's acoustic forms, Malone's books are a validation of your passion. They are also a retro road map of how the musicians and tunes that moved our souls arrived in our lives.

    He's also a master miner of interesting facts sprinkled in among the life and times of country musicians from distant past to present. Who knew that Lester Flatt and Buck Owens both played the mandolin as well as guitar in their early band forays? The ironic details that Malone digs up and packs into his writing are a delight.

    I bought an original copy of Country Music USA decades ago in a used book store but didn't get around to reading it until a few years ago. I was smitten by the breadth and depth of facts given to old-time country string bands and individual performers in a 384-page book. Bluegrass stood tall alongside the other forms of country music, such as the electric honky-tonk of the 1950s and Nashville pop country of the Fifties and Sixties. Merle Haggard is mentioned as part of a resurgence of real country honky-tonk music in a book with the music frozen at 1968.

    For a Baby Boomer like me who plugged into folk, country and bluegrass music about 1969, and who witnessed and participated in the Americana roots music that followed, what set the stage is fascinating. The final chapter in the first edition is titled "Bluegrass and the Urban Folk Revival." Like all his writing, he covers extensive ground from the sociology and American history underpinning the music to details about artists and songs. Amid the facts, when Malone tosses in an opinion, it counts.

    For example, from first edition, on the origins of bluegrass style and whether the influence of Bill Monroe or Earl Scruggs was most important: "If there had been no Bill Monroe, there would be no bluegrass music; but on the other hand, if there had been no Earl Scruggs, the music would not have become nationally popular and Bill Monroe would not have gained the recognition that he long deserved."

    This thought coined by a man who saw Uncle Dave Macon play the banjo onstage at a tent show in 1949; who was wary when then-folksinger Janis Joplin joined Austin's barroom country music jams in the early 1960s; who loved electric honky-tonk music and rubbed shoulders with people who played it; but also who could upon request render "Uncle Pen" during his own musical appearances.

    This summer, reading Malone's True Vine gave me new appreciation for Mike Seeger's life and all he did for bluegrass and folk music. That book, and also reading Malone's 2017 essay collection, Sing Me Back Home: Southern Roots and Country Music, prompted me to revisit the first and most-recent editions of Country Music USA. I trekked to Madison to interview him at WORT as he handed a producer selections to play from stacks of CDs and LPs he brought to the station.

    Mike Seeger playing some mandolin at a party alongside his wife, Alexia Smith.
    Mike Seeger playing mandolin at a party alongside wife Alexia Smith. Photo credit: Alexia Smith

    "Our theme today is rain, we'll be playing some rain songs," Malone says evenly into the WORT microphone. A version of Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain" sung by Jonathan Edwards followed.

    As the youngest son on a hardscrabble, Depression era Texas cotton farm, Malone heard his mother sing old folk and popular songs.

    "Music, then, was her salvation, as it was for me," he wrote in Sing Me Back Home.

    Then in 1939, when he was 5, a Philco battery radio arrived in their house, bringing country music and the outside world.

    "We began each day with live hillbilly shows broadcast from Tyler, Dallas, Fort Worth, Shreveport, and Tulsa, and we brightened our dinners with the gospel music of the Chuck Wagon Gang or the Stamps Quartet," he wrote in a biographical essay. "Each Saturday night, of course, we listened to the Grand Ole Opry from Nashville, and occasionally picked up a syndicated segment of the National Barn Dance from Chicago."

    On this rain-themed show from WORT, Malone speaks to the audience with sadness about a man who died in flash flooding the day prior, a good friend of his and the listener-supported public station. But then he turns back to the music, spinning songs such as Mac Wiseman singing "It Rains Just the Same In Missouri." His radio style is a reminder of long ago hillbilly DJs.

    "This makes me appreciate what they did as disc jockeys," Malone said. "They played the music, did the news, gave the weather report, and then they had to put the needle down just right on the record groove."

    Malone has important help, though, with his radio shows, his books, and his life. Bobbie Malone is also on a microphone and engaging in on-air chit chat with her husband about the music and upcoming musical events.

    They met during his teaching years in Louisiana. A friend took her to meet him when he was performing in a seedy bar with the Hill Country Ramblers. Malone was singing "Driving Nails In My Coffin" when she walked in. They talked that night during a band break, and that was it, a second marriage for both was in the offing.

    Bill and Bobbie Malone
    Photo credit: Bill Graham

    Later, Bobbie picked up the Gibson A-model mandolin that Bill Malone bought in his Austin days, and she started playing. Today, they perform at coffee houses, retirement homes, and special events in and around Madison. She plays in a simple, old-time country style.

    "I'm a mandolin picker by marriage," Bobbie said. "I realized how important music was to him. I realized if I didn't pick, I was going to miss 95 percent of his personality."

    Bill Malone's mandolin preferences have always leaned towards the brother duets. He loved the Blue Sky Boys and the Louvin Brothers. He interviewed Bill Bolick who played mandolin for the Blue Sky Boys. In bluegrass, the Stanley Brothers are near the top of his list. But he fully understands and appreciates Bill Monroe and many others.

    "The mandolin is such a versatile instrument," Malone said. "It can be used to play anything, from the amazing stuff that Chris Thile plays, to the jazz that David Grisman uses, to some of the lovely tremolos that Bill Bolick used."

    Malone as historian and writer covers all aspects of country music. Though he is not fond of the soft Nashville pop sounds of decades past or most of what's playing on modern country airwaves now. But amid new records, the honky-tonk sound on Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "One Endless Night" album was a favorite for him this year, and Wayne Hancock's "Thunderstorms and Neon Signs." He spins Keith Whitely's "I'm No Stranger to the Rain" as the WORT show progresses.

    But he always has an ear on the acoustic music side, too. Monroe, Thile, Marty Stuart, Ronnie McCoury, and Rhonda Vincent — all holding mandolins — are among the artists pictured in an updated Traditions chapter in the 748-page, 50th edition of Country Music USA.

    "I think Tim O'Brien is among the most versatile musicians right now," Malone said. "He sings, writes songs, plays the mandolin and other instruments — he does it all."

    Malone also respects Marty Stuart's work onstage and off. They met working on another documentary.

    "He's the most eloquent man in country music, and he's a great photographer and historian," Malone said.

    Next up, both Bill and Bobbie are working on a book about songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, a journey that's taken them to stops from Milwaukee to Nashville.

    "That's a new part of our relationship," said Bobbie, also a writer and historian. "We're testing this after 41 years. But we've been editing each other for 41 years."

    Bill and Bobbie Malone

    Live broadcast from WORT 89.9 FM Madison, Wisconsin with country music authority Bill Malone and his partner Bobbie. The song (Won't You Ride In) "My Little Red Wagon" was written by Rex Griffin and became a theme song for Hank Penny.

    Bill Malone's ability to remember lyrics for countless songs earned him a place in jam sessions when he first hit Austin. That memory must serve him well in his music writing and radio show. Who else would think to add a flood song to this particular show's playlist that was recorded by Ernest Stoneman in 1927, "The Story of the Mighty Mississippi?"

    "I always loved to find the words of songs, always lyric oriented," Malone said. "Like the Charlie Parker quote, 'listen to the stories man.' "

    His weekly WORT show is titled Back to the Country. On this day, the final cuts come from Norman Blake and Doc Watson. He adds some tenor harmony as Doc's final chorus of "Greenville Trestle" spills out of the studio monitors.

    After all these years he still enjoys the music and digging up stories about people and the songs they make. Writing is the hard part.

    "I can spend hours and hours at it," Malone said of research. "It's fun. That's why I can keep doing it, I just enjoy stuff. I find an immense amount of stuff now on the web."

    Parts of his extensive collection of music, photographs, books, and memorabilia are already donated to the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina. More will follow. Future historians will look through groundwork done by Malone. Aspects awaiting authors, he said, are the stories about producers, recording engineers, and session musicians who influenced music style.

    Many books now roll off the presses about country, bluegrass and folk music. The often echo the style set in Country Music USA. Malone thought he was writing an epitaph for real country music. Instead, he's watched the styles he championed linger, thrive and grow.

    Malone will lend his spoken voice and as well as words to that history when Ken Burns' documentary airs and re-airs on PBS. His advance look at the film made him grateful but hungry for more.

    "Overall, I think people are really going to be pleased with it," Malone said. "I personally would like more oldtime stuff. They asked us to see it to offer suggestions on how to shorten it. I wasn't much help. I saw parts I wanted to be added to instead of taken out."

    Bill Malone Authored Books

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    Comments 7 Comments
    1. pops1's Avatar
      pops1 -
      Bill does a show on WORT on Wednesdays from 9-12 in the morning. Been listening to it for years now. You can stream it too. Nice article and great to see the pictures and listen, thanks.
    1. Nick Royal's Avatar
      Nick Royal -
      Great interview. Years ago when I taught a folk music class at UC-Santa Cruz, I made use of Country Music USA.
    1. Mark Gunter's Avatar
      Mark Gunter -
      This is great news! Will be looking for that new documentary.
    1. Kevin Winn's Avatar
      Kevin Winn -
      Nice piece on Mr. Malone. Can't wait for the Burns documentary!
    1. pops1's Avatar
      pops1 -
      Listening to Bill's show now. WORT community radio.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Bumping this feature article as Malone is playing a prominent role in the new Ken Burns documentary on Country Music.
    1. pops1's Avatar
      pops1 -
      I am listening to Bill's show out of WORT in Madison, WI. It's a classic country show of course and his wife Bobby hosts with him usually. He also still performs some around the area with Bobby and others. Just noticed I was listening last time too, must have been a Wednesday.