Curative Talk For a True Life
By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
September 10, 2009 - 5:45 am
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.
I loved Bill Monroe more after I finished reading Richard D. Smith's controversial biography about him.
That's why I defend Smith's work published in 2000, "Can't You Hear Me Calling, The Life of Bill Monroe."
A scenario I witnessed in the 1980s as Monroe left his tour bus punctured my reverence and left me uncertain about him. The same occurred for many in the bluegrass music world.
What some view as Smith tarnishing a reputation was instead for me a restoration of lost dignity. But only time and more biographies will present a clearer view, and consensus may never exist because so much opinion depends on the deeply personal feelings within the witness.
Monroe's long and varied life coupled with his profound music and contradictory personal characteristics makes him a very difficult biography subject. He was born into 19th century culture on Sept. 13, 1911, and he died at age 84 on Sept. 9, 1996, having experienced the space age and hearing talk about computers changing the world. As an artist, he was known worldwide but somewhat obscure at the same time.
I respect anyone willing to tackle the big chore of describing Monroe's life.
But my appreciation for Smith's book includes: the fact that I enjoyed reading it; I learned a lot I didn't know before; what I did already know was put into better context, and—he tackled Monroe's personal life in ways that explained much to me and soothed my uncertain feelings toward him.
These opinions won't increase my popularity.
Many people in bluegrass loath Smith's book. Those who are the most emotional detest the emphasis that Smith put on Monroe's relationships with women, those close to him and those who were sexual flings. Smith counters that the women in his life are important to understanding the wellspring of Monroe's music.
Other critics simply wanted more in a biography about his music and songs, his childhood influences, Monroe's happy moments and more praise for his continued musical creativity and recording in his final decades.
Some who interacted with him through the years contend that Smith didn't get to know the real Bill.
Although, the mandolin-playing Smith began following bluegrass in 1963, he first heard Monroe on concert in 1966, and he first talked to him in 1970. Backstage at one show, Monroe noticed him trying to follow his fingerings on a tune, so Bill ran though it slowly so he could learn it. In the early 1970s Smith's band went to Bean Blossom and wound up helping Monroe move straw bales and talking to him. At a concert in New York, there was a jam and Smith shared a microphone with Monroe. Plus he interviewed him for a 1980s Bluegrass Unlimited story. So they weren't total strangers.
Still, there were fierce criticisms regarding fact errors, context and other matters leveled at Smith in a multi-gun broadside against the book in the Spring 2001 issue of "True Life News," edited by West Coast bluegrasser Sandy Rothman. Today, Rothman says a bit of the emotion has ebbed, but the general distrust of Smith's work remains.
I'll leave the error contentions for Smith to defend and future scholars to discuss.
But something in one paragraph that Tom Ewing wrote is important to discuss for this biography and those to come. Ewing, a Bluegrass Boy in Monroe's final decade or so of performing, was among Smith's harshest critics in "True Life News," and says he feels even more strongly so now as he works on his own biography of Monroe.
Ewing wrote that the portrait Smith painted could make people no longer care how talented and influential Monroe was musically, that readers including young musicians could think less of Monroe, and worse, turn their backs on bluegrass music.
I respect Ewing's loyalty and his personal and professional experience with Monroe. But I disagree with him on this point, because Monroe himself had already damaged his public reputation. Hiding the issues only worsened the wound.
Musicians only talked about Monroe's music when I began to listen to him in depth in the 1970s. By the early 1980s, I was a rabid fan. The first time I ever heard him live, in 1982, I was blown away by him and the band. I interviewed him that day for a newspaper story and came away impressed.
A friend on the same musical journey told me about seeing Monroe at an Eminence, Mo., festival and how he was the epitome of the old time southern gentleman.
To me his music, his stubborn nature, the scratching of the Gibson logo off his mandolin—it all took me back to my grandparents Ozark farm and other rural Missouri places. My grandparents married as teenagers and never strayed in their love. Monroe seemed safely steady, sweet and self reliant like so many family members and neighbors in my small-town upbringing.
Then someone damaged his F5 mandolins with a fire poker, and there was publicity about that and similar problems. An older gentleman who had been around bluegrass far longer than I gave me an explanation that Monroe had girlfriends, and they were unhappy with him.
I was totally surprised. This was a very different Monroe than what I had in my mind. What about the Father of Bluegrass standing in front of a little community church in an LP album cover photo?
Then shortly after, I was at a bluegrass festival in the Missouri Ozarks and Monroe was to play. His driver had set up the record table outside the bus. The Bluegrass Boys were signing autographs and a crowded had gathered to gawk and perhaps see the father.
Sure enough, Monroe appeared on the steps of the bus. Clinging to his arm in a fondly manner was a hefty bleach blond woman in her 20s wearing a cleavage-showing blouse and an ill-fitting cowgirl hat. Is that a niece or granddaughter, I wondered?
Monroe plunged into the crowd in a hasty manner that left her behind, and I stood near the woman and another woman with her. She complained that the fans kept Monroe from her. It became clear to me from observing and hearing more of her conversation that she considered herself as Monroe's girlfriend, and that she was naïve and not very bright.
Frankly, my opinions of Monroe were seriously wounded on all fronts.
Years went by and I had conversations with friends who had similar experiences. A young married couple that I introduced to bluegrass had gone to a festival, seen Monroe with a strange looking young woman, and it turned them away from his music. Another couple who are permanent bluegrass fans visited with a Monroe girlfriend at a show who went into detail about what he could and could not do sexually in his old age.
Such stories became oft told. When Monroe was still alive, I heard a bluegrass legend remark onstage to a crowd that "he's still bringing those old gals down to the Opry." Everyone already knew what that was about.
To this day when the subject of Monroe comes up I've heard people joke about and say things about his womanizing that are far, far stronger than anything Smith wrote.
But Monroe's personal life doesn't bother or concern me much anymore. I'm back to just the music.
Smith's book gave me background on Monroe's painful childhood, loss of parents and challenging young adult life that I didn't have in such detail before. I've accepted that there were reasons for the way he was without worrying about them or passing judgment.
A healing has begun for bluegrass fans because Smith dealt with the subject openly. Buried it festers, but exposed to discussion, thought and forgiveness, the wound heals.
I also understood after reading the book that many of Monroe's relationships with women were deeply emotional and meaningful. A complicated life does not diminish love and affection.
Also, throughout the book I felt Smith was gentle with Monroe on many topics that a more cold-natured biographer could be, or might yet be.
Monroe is portrayed overall in a very sympathetic light, and as someone vastly important to bluegrass music and beyond.
Smith wrote in his introduction: "Indeed, Bill Monroe would become the most broadly talented and broadly influential figure in the history of American popular music."
Critics, including Monroe loyalists, point to that sentence is an overshot and proof that Smith is an incompetent biographer.
The sentence gave me pause when I first read it, too. But at night when I can't sleep and things are racing through my mind, I've thought about this sentence a lot and I have trouble punching a hole in it.
Had Smith been vague and said "among the most" instead of "the most" he would have been safe. But safe isn't always the honest truth. There are debate points on his side when you ponder broadly talented and broadly influential."
Time may be more kind to Smith regarding his position.
Even Bob Dylan said in a 1978 interview for Playboy Magazine: "If I had known then what I do now, I probably would have taken off when I was 12 and followed Bill Monroe. 'Cause I could have gotten to the same place... Probably would have saved me a lot of time and hassles."
For sure the debate about Monroe's life will continue. There will be more biographies that contain new information and perspective.
I anxiously await Ewing's book because I'm simply a Monroe fan who wants more. Perhaps his son James Monroe will write one someday. I'd buy a fat book with nothing but family photos, publicity stills and fan snapshots that show his life from start to finish. His youth alone would support a detailed book.
Like a good record you hear too often, we can tire of Monroe and turn our attention elsewhere. But his profound influence always brings us back for awhile.
Smith's book laid bare the good, great and perplexing all at once in an easily readable form. He need not be personally crucified for a journalistic effort.
Let the next Monroe biographies state their case, and the healing continue for Monroe's wounded personal image and disappointed fans.
He is undisputedly one of the greatest musical artists of our time no matter what hindsight says about his life.
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I thought it was a fascinating read, and a fair and respectful treatment of a difficult subject. I loved the book, it helped me tremendously in understanding the man, the changing times, and the music.
The article's central theme is Bill Monroe's womanizing and how it on the one hand offended bluegrass fans (or were they idolizers?) and loyal Monroeists that tried to defend the man's musical personality from his private personality.
If one looks at the "world out there" nobody could ever disagree with my statement that womanizing artists merely raises an eyebrow these days. If you look at the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, P Diddy Coombs, Pete Doherty and the list could go on and on, womanizing is almost imperative to the aspiring artist and his public standing.
Why does it offend the bluegrass enthusiast. It does because we (I do include myself to some degree) see a purity in the music that sings of the ups and downs in life, of love, labor and death. We project our own bad in the music and in doing so we cleanse ourselves (or at least we hope to do so). We aspire to be moral beings and we try to follow a good way. Even though it is being noted with a certain contempt that people like Ricky Skaggs (Ron Block is in the same line) incorporate their opinion on faith and belief in their public act bluegrass musicians as well as bluegrass music enthusiasts are not your average streetgang-member (thoughtwise and other).
We therefore asume that the father of bluegrass music by necessity must have lead a life pure and innocent. And while we cannot deny that each and everyone of us has personal flaws it hurts (many) to have to acknowledge a disregarded personal behaviour (womanizing) in a person (Monroe) that is cherished (and idolized) as having created a (to my mind one of the most inspiring) musical art form.
I certainly do know little enough about Bill Monroe to weigh in my opinion in critcizing Richard Smith (Dick Smith of the Country Gentlemen fame?) or claiming that the critizism is flawed.
I though find that there is a conclusion in the portrayal of Bill Monroe's various wifes, girlfriends, flings etc. in "Cant You Hear Me Calling". The personalities of the ladies mentioned by name in the book all reconciled (in the end). This for me spoke of an understanding or at least acceptance of a personality as complex as Bill Monroe's. I will not be the one who judges my fellow man here.
With respect to the music "Can't You Hear Me Calling" provided insight into the historical and musical background of bluegrass music. Was it deep enough. For me... no. But I might guess that it is no wonder that Tom Ewing's Bill Monroe biography takes more than 10 years to come around. My hat is off to him to undertake this laborious task to put into writing not only a complex figure such as Bill Monroe was but the mutitude of musical ideas that bluegrass came from and to describe the development that the bluegrass genre and its father has undergone in the years up to Bill Monroe's passing. I am waiting for the biography to come out. I dearly love the Bill Monroe Reader (Tom Ewing as editor).
What will Bill Monroe be remembered for is what Bill Graham asked.
- All will remember him as the father of bluegrass music (even though some may claim the advent of bluegrass with the incorporation of Earl Scruggs in the Bluegrass Boys)
- All will remember Bill Monroe for a charismatic figure (wether you may like it or not; and this is what strikes up the controversy)
- All will remember him as a powerfull musician. (There will allways be a controversy about his mandolin playing even though I dare anyone who critizises Monroe's style to try to copy it first and see how far they will go)
- Many will see him as a forerunner of the music that allmost bore his downfall, namely Rock and Roll. (all the early Rock & Rollers held Monroe in high esteem; though nowadays pop musicians may not give a dang confronted with the music they cannot and will not deny an impact)
- A lesser number of people will be able to apreciate the true musical input that the incredible amount of original Monroe numbers have (mostly musicians and among them the mandolin players).
If this can be common consensus I am satisfied. I don't think it is necessary to love (bluegrass) acoustic music to idolize a person or do damn him for his personal behaviour.
What strikes me and what deems me to be important for the future is that the/any controversy about Bill Monroe (be it academic or otherwise) will bring publicity for the musc. This then enables a further development. As the times go on and as more and more contemporaries of Bill Monroe pass on studies and research will turn more and more into speculation as it has happened with composers like Mozart etc. To research, do speculate and to discuss the man and the music will keep the genre alive.
My personal recollection about Bill Monroe is an Opry concert in the year of 1994. I went withoug expectation to see an old man to perform his own music. Bill Monroe (and him personaly) had a stage personality and had put on a show that exceeded by far what I had seen in any public event (pop, rock, classical music, theatre) ever. When the show was over and the lights faded I noticed that someone took Bill Monroe and helped from the stage; he was that fragile (from the recently received injury I suppose). Not only have I enjoyed the show, I learned a great deal about showmanship and public adress. (And I listen to other music apart from bluegrass - enough to not get stuck in a rut)
Not the same Richard Smith.
If you really want to know & understand the man (as much as we can by reading !),a sanitised life story would be half the story.
If you think that Richard D.Smith's book blows the 'gentlemanly' image of Bill Monroe away,don't ever read "Nashville Babylon" (unless you already have). That book does more than 'tarnish' a few images of Country music stars. I think the only reason that the author (Randall Reise)wasn't sued off the planet,is that all the stuff was true & well known about.
Compared to the lifestyle of many great musicians past & present & in all genres of music,Bill Monroe's few 'dalliances' with ladies is nothing to shout about & as Grassroots... says,who are we to judge - ''let him who is without sin etc'',
Dick Smith's book is trash. If you like that sort of thing, great; he wrote it for you. While struggling through the book myself, it was the author, and not Monroe, who came off poorly. I remember thinking numerous times what an a-hole the author must be.
Not shockingly then, I also disagree with Mr. Graham's assessment of the situation. If some dude you had a cup of coffee with once, started airing dirty laundry about you, how might that make you feel? If said dude did the same to someone you care about, after they'd died, how might THAT make you feel? I'm not sure what that's supposed to heal.
And now this is how we get to celebrate Bill Monroe's birthday, seemingly every year... talking about some Dick's book. Sadness.
Happy early birthday Mon!
"Human nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put here to rise above."
--Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen.
Couldn't disagree more. If including details about the personal life, of the subject of a biography, makes it "trash," then most of the bios I've read have been "trash."
While Can't You Hear Me Callin' is far from perfect, it is, IMHO, an honest attempt to present the story of a complex, flawed, wildly talented and determined musician, who made a lasting permanent impression on American music. The ups and downs of Monroe's life surely influenced his music, and by extension, the music of all who play, enjoy, or follow bluegrass music.
No one's reading the book for prurient interest. I read it to get a broader, more detailed view of a musician whose creativity has greatly influenced my own musical life. Recognizing that it's one writer's perspective, and that any such book necessarily emphasizes some aspects, omits others, and cannot possibly be the "entire picture," I found it enjoyable, enlightening, and useful.
We can be fans of Bill Monroe without idealizing him. It's Twitter-active teens who can't stand to hear anything bad about One Direction or Miley Cyrus. The "dirty laundry" part of Can't You Hear Me Callin' is not the raison d'etre for the book; it's not a "tell-all expose'," just an attempt to cover the entire life of an important figure. Smith's high regard for Bill Monroe is evident throughout. Monroe's life was an amazing journey; his music endures, and the fact that he wasn't a saint is not anything we should get worked up over -- again, IMHO.
--Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen. End Quote
Ahh, yes, jaycat...how right you are. We strive...but alas, we often fail. All we can do is persevere.
There's another big challenge in respecting the man and the music for me personally. In many of his songs, he directly states the personal truth of these stories. He portrays himself in these songs in a very personal light as a victim and he reaffirms the truth of them. When these songs like "Little Georgia Rose" about his daughter, who he refused to recognize in most circumstances and he blamed Bessie, the girl's mother for stealing his beloved baby away. He confirms that it's a true story and then goes on to slander the girl's mother. I find that particularly difficult to swallow and while I enjoy the song and keep on thinking about adding it to my repetoir, I can't help think to myself while singing it that it's a really vile piece of history to keep repeating.
I have similar thoughts about Sweet Sunny South. Love that song, but once I learned it was a minstrel song about missing the days of slavery, I've been a bit hesitant to recommend it at jam sessions.
Many maybe, but not all.
"Mistreated you... for that I'm sorry. Come back to me is my request."
No one's reading the book for prurient interest. End Quote
If they were, they'd be sorely disappointed.
It is unbelievably mild, inoffensive stuff compared to many biographies.
The alternative to including some "distasteful" (to some) facts is either not writing a book at all, or producing something as sterilized, anodyne and - frankly - boring and full of self-promotion as Ricky Skagg's recent tome. I know which I prefer. Nothing wrong with a "warts and all" biog - but don't just rely on one source before forming a conclusion, consult everything available and make your own mind up.
Yesterday I re-read the Bill Graham essay that this tread is addressing and wondered if anyone knows how a person might contact Mr. Graham,the author?
If memory serves he lives in Kansas City, Mo but I am not sure of that. His name is too common to accurately search him out on line without knowing his place of residence for certain.
My question for him pertains to where one might find copies of the "True Life Stories" he refers to in the essay. Apparently these stories were a creation of Tom Ewing and Sandy Rothman and deal with the early days of Bluegrass and Bill Monroe in particular. I'd like to find and read them.
If anyone knows where they are published I would be interested in knowing as well!
But like I said, time marches on. Probably retired. All the Best
I still stand by my Monroe column referenced above. Though my love of the man and his music continues to deepen with time. And the other doesn't matter much, though it's nice to have understanding.
I still believe Richard Smith's biography of Monroe is excellent.
Regarding the Ewing and Rothman articles referenced above, I was provided materials by them and several other people prior to writing that essay. But I no longer have at hand. I would suggest you search the net for a connection to Sandy Rothman.
I have an all-original songs CD, West Missouri Ramble, if anyone is interested.
Meanwhile, pick on and maybe see some of you at Winfield.
Read Art Pepper's autobio, Straight Life. Pepper was the great West Coast alto sax player. If even half the book is true, it's shocking.
Monroe had flaws - of course he did. the tensions that drive him make the music that drive us as mandolin players. For every time he cheated on the woman he was cheating on the woman he was cheating on, anohter song. It is not for us to judge his behaviour, but his music. And it is sublime and beautiful and about as perfect as you can get.
Smith and Graham help us realise this. Thank you for posting the review again.