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Bill Monroe

He Gave Bluegrass Life

by Joanne Nesbit

What do Elvis, Jerry Garcia, Frank Sinatra, and Johnny Cash all have in common?

They were all fans of Bill Monroe, commonly acknowledged as the father of bluegrass music.

Richard D. Smith's recent publication "Can't You Hear Me Callin': The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass" details the life of the musician from Rosine, Kentucky, who "created a distinctive musical genre." Arguments about the origins of bluegrass continue, and Smith discusses some of those, but in the end he and fans of the genre consider Monroe the daddy of it all.

From the Western Kentucky farm of his birth where his father would slip him a quarter to his days of fame on radio, recordings and personal appearances, Bill Monroe operated on a cash only basis, requiring payment for his appearances in cash and, in turn, making his purchases in cash. In the early 1950s Monroe and his brother Birch were experiencing a positive cash flow and began purchasing the existing Brown County Jamboree. At that time the Bean Blossom attraction was in some disrepair, but the brothers envisioned it as a venue for Bill's talents.

They finally took title to the property in 1959.

Begun in the 1930s by a Brown County local, the original stage was housed in a big tent. By the 1940s, a long barn-type structure was added. Today there are many more facilities at the park and at least two large festivals each year. Until his death in 1982 Birch was the manager of the Bean Blossom facility, operating from his home in Martinsville. A couple of weeks before each show or festival, Birch would travel about Brown County nailing up posters touting the coming event. He wasn't hard to miss. He always wore a starched white dress shirt and tie, carried the colorful posters under one arm, and had a hammer and tacks ready for any telephone pole or other surface that would accept the pointed end.

Early events at the Jamboree included square dances on Saturday nights and concerts on Sunday afternoons, but under Birch's guidance the Bean Blossom enterprise seemed to be going nowhere. As Smith writes, "He was notorious for buying just a small package of hamburger for the concession stand or a couple rolls of toilet paper for the outhouses. When the park ran out of food or tissue, Birch would of course go to the nearby store [one must surmise that it was McDonald's IGA] to purchase more supplies; meanwhile the patrons became hungry or quite anxious."

Just as his brother Bill would do, Birch dealt in cash only—coming in and going out. In later years, the county supplied water to the Jamboree grounds.

After an event, the Monroes just left town and didn't respond to statements and overdue notices to pay the water bill. So, the water would be shut off. Usually, about two days before the next event, a member of the Monroe entourage would show up at the Nashville Town Hall, inquire as to the amount necessary to reinstate the water service and pay up the overdue bill. Once given the figures, a wad of cash was pulled from deep in a pants pocket and the amount was paid in full. The Jamboree was ready for spectators once again.

Fans came and still come from all over to hear the bluegrass attributed to Bill Monroe. They gathered in the low-roofed barn decorated with an eclectic accumulation of farm tools. Seating was just as random, ranging from old theater seats to folding chairs. In winter heat radiated from strategically placed woodstoves. It was into this scenario in the 1960s that a young banjo-picking Californian came to audition for Bill Monroe. "Intimidated by the mere sight of the formidable Kentuckian," Smith writes, "[Jerry] Garcia went back home without even speaking to Bill. He subsequently joined a folk-rock band that became the Grateful Dead. Garcia's tolerance of Dead fans taping his live shows was a direct outgrowth of his experiences at the Brown County Jamboree and other bluegrass venues."

According to Smith, the Monroe tradition of trading only in cash finally became a liability. Often there were tens of thousands of dollars in cash on the tour bus. And eventually and predictably there were losses. The man who had been appearing before packed houses and hillsides with his mandolin and signature Stetson for nearly 50 years had spent or lost about as much as he had made. His assets were next to nothing. At times his personal reputation was in question as womanizing and feuds with former performers captured headlines.

But Smith puts the talented and forceful Bill Monroe into words at the close of his book with, "He had been a forward-looking innovator, in truth a rebel, who had broken the rules and created an entirely new paradigm. Yet most of his music had been inspired by bygone places and events. He had been full of the blues but not depressed. Unhurried, he had a ferocious work ethic. He wanted to be the focus of attention, yet enjoyed sharing the spotlight. He had been cantankerous and eager to mend fences, a tyrannical taskmaster and a kindly instructor, a hurtful trickster and a Christian gentleman. He often seemed inaccessible, yet he inspired lifelong devotion. Compulsive in love, he retained certain strict moral boundaries. He made such an impression that people never forgot what he said to them; yet at times even his closest friends couldn't tell if he was serious or joking."

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