Friday, September 5, 2008

Bluegrass Time by Phil Zimmerman - Book Review

The forward by Rhonda Vincent establishes a backward looking view from a seasoned performer at the early days of bluegrass festivals and the Introduction by Fred Bartenstein, an old friend of Phil’s and former editor of Muleskinner News magazine, establishes a context for the world of bluegrass as it developed in the late 1960’s and into the seventies. In his introduction, Bartenstein urges readers to look carefully at the pictures with an eye to seeing the remarkable convergence of cultures taking place in the early festivals. There, hippies and rural southern musicians who grew up on farms shared their love of the music despite political and cultural differences which look like chasms today. He also urges careful readers to look at the fringes of the pictures to see the women who in later years would begin to exert the impact we fully see in today’s lineups.
David Grisman, Sam Bush , Peter Rowan

Phil Zimmerman has been involved in the bluegrass festival scene since the first festival organized by Carlton Haney in Fincastle, VA over Labor Day weekend in 1965. Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, the Stanley Brothers, the Osborne Brothers, Don Reno, Red Smiley…and the list goes on. They were all there, the icons of the first generation of bluegrass musicians, now, sadly, mostly gone. Also there were those who would carry on the tradition – Pete Wernick and Sam Bush, who talk about their experience there at jam camps and workshops. The grand finale at Fincastle, organized by Haney and narrated by Monroe established a tradition of on-stage jamming and coverage of the history of bluegrass music that dominated early festivals and, sadly, hardly exists today.
As I paged through this marvelous collection, I was repeatedly struck by the diversity the early festivals offered up. There was a huge range of music with John Prine, Steve Goodman, and Don McClean appearing on the same bill as The Lily Brothers, the Stonemans, Charlie Monroe, Red Allen and Del McCoury. The Culpepper-Warrenton Bluegrass Festival in Warrenton, VA in 1973 had it all. Today, our music seems to need to fit into narrow niches of tonal and content purity that seemingly were unknown then.
Frank Wakefield and Peter Rowan
In his Preface, Phil Zimmerman comments that as both a performing musician and a photographer, he often had to choose between picking and taking pictures. Often he chose, with no apologies, the former, meaning that many pictures were left untaken. The photographs in this book, are selected from a larger exhibition held at the International Bluegrass Music Museum which opened on June 26, 2008 in Owensboro, KY. Pictures have been selected from a series of festivals held between 1972 and 1984, mostly in the northeast. The photographs, mostly in sharp, contrasty black and white, evoke a world that probably no longer exists. Phil’s commentary ranges from history to personal reminiscence. He writes a capsule profile of the Stanley Brothers under a picture of Ralph with Keith Whitley. In another picture he shows the fourteen year old Marty Stuart and quotes Stuart saying, “That was the weekend Lester Flatt offerd me a job…” His pictures of John Hartford are particularly haunting.
John Hartford

The personality and image of Bill Monroe dominate this book. From the magnificent cover picture capturing the “father of bluegrass music” in the midst of a solo, to pictures of him leading the audience in song, and in a description of Monroe’s complex relationship to his instrument and the company that made it, Monroe emerges as the complex and intriguing genius we have come to understand him to be. Zimmerman also deepens the reader’s understanding of bluegrass music through offering big insights in small tidbits. For instance, Bela Fleck has been nominated for Grammy awards in more categories than any other musician. The young Peter Rowan, a joyfully evil looking Sonny Osborne, shaggy Sam Bush and David Grisman, and almost maniacal looking Frank Wakefield are all caught in revealing shots. The photographs and text of this fine book constitute a collection of bluegrass memorabilia essential for anyone with an interest in or memory of the early days of bluegrass festivals.
Bluegrass Time by Phil Zimmerman can be obtained directly from the author here for $25.00 plus shipping. Don’t miss it. All photographs in this review copyright Phil Zimmerman, used by permission.