by Trudy Heffernan
CAN'T YOU HEAR ME CALLIN'
The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass
By Richard D. Smith
Little, Brown. 365 pp. $25.95
This biography of the "Father of Bluegrass" is simply a must read for anyone interested in the history of country or bluegrass music.
Bill Monroe was born in 1911 and was a consummate performer and composer of his own style of music until he died at the age of 84. Today his music is represented by thousands throughout the United States as well as in many countries around the world. A Grand Ole Opry star for almost sixty years, he introduced Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Del McCoury, Peter Rowan, Kenny Baker, Mac Wiseman and over a hundred other Blue Grass Boys to the fast growing population of bluegrass fans.
Monroe influenced much more than the country and bluegrass artists. Elvis Presley chose one of his songs, "Blue Moon of Kentucky," for his first single. Bob Dylan was quoted as saying "I’d rather listen to Bill and Charlie Monroe than any current record. That's what America's all about to me." Jerry Garcia, Johnny Cash, and Buddy Holly were also amongst his fans.
Smith interviewed a multitude of Monroe's friends, colleagues, band members, and lovers to build a captivating life history of a man who was as compassionate as he was ornery, as strong as he was vulnerable, and as visionary as he was short-sighted. The author goes out of his way to present an honest, well documented account of Monroe's life while avoiding the temptation to over-analyze or artificially dramatize. His quotes and facts are meticulously footnoted avoiding any controversy about his source. It is disappointing to learn, however, that some key people including Kenny Baker, Sonny Osborne, Earl Scruggs and Bill's son James refused to be interviewed for this book. As players in Bill's life come in and out of the biography, Smith is careful to educate the reader about each new character. He also succinctly covers the background leading up to establishments like the Grand Ole Opry and the big Bluegrass Festivals. These parallel histories are as important to the story of Bill Monroe's life as they are to country and bluegrass history itself.
Although the author is obviously a great admirer of Bill Monroe, he does not attempt to explain or excuse the less honorable traits of his subject, including Monroe's sometimes petty jealousy of others in the music business nor his long term infidelities to the women in his life. Monroe was known to hold grudges for years but near the end of his life he patched up many old friendships and renewed important musical relationships. Even old lovers found their way back to his side as friends and assistants. The captivating personality that made this possible comes through in this wonderful biography which is firmly in the "pick it up and you will not be able to put it down" category.
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