Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"Can't You Hear Me Callin': The Life of Bill Monroe" by Richard D. Smith

Anyone approaching Bill Monroe's life story, or his music for that matter, finds himself confronted with a dilemma much like the six blind men in the parable, which goes something like this: Six blind men were asked to describe an elephant by examining different parts of it. The blind man who felt a leg said that the elephant is like a pillar; the one who felt the tail said the elephant is like a rope; the one who felt the trunk said the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who felt the ear said the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who felt the belly said the elephant is like a wall; and the one who felt the tusk said the elephant is like a solid pipe. A wise man explained to them that they were all right, because everyone understands the part they have experienced. Bill Monroe, until the very end remained different things to different people depending on when and how they encountered him. Richard D. Smith, in his well-researched biography of Bill Monroe called Can't You Hear Me Callin': The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass tries to capture the many dimensions of this enigmatic and difficult but brilliant and endlessly creative man who created a musical genre. 
The outline of the Monroe story is clear and well agreed to. Born to a Kentucky farm family of modest means in rural circumstances in 1911, William Smith Monroe grew up with extremely bad eyesight, mostly ignored by his busy father, and teased by his older brothers. He became a reclusive and lonely child who learned more by listening than by seeing. He was early introduced to music by his mother and his uncle, fiddler Pen Vandiver. As a youth he grew accustomed to hard work and developed into a physically imposing man. He followed his older brothers to the industrial cities of the Midwest as part of the southern diaspora during the depression where they worked in industrial plants by day and played music at night. They gradually moved from manufacturing to making music and found themselves on radio and performing. By the late thirties, Bill Monroe was an established professional, a member of the Grand Old Opry and was able to make a living from music for the rest of his life. His most famous band, the 1946 – 1948 group including Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs as members of The Blue Grass Boys established his music as a separate form of country music and was eventually dubbed bluegrass music, becoming a distinct sub-genre. During succeeding generations, hundred of men and a few women moved through his band and out on their own, Monroe had his downs and ups while trying to continue making the music he had created through the rock and roll revolution and the folk music crazes. While he was a great innovator and perform, he was a poor manager of his career and his money. The bluegrass music festival movement resurrected his career and his later years were highlighted by his becoming a more approachable personality and the beloved “Father” of bluegrass music. He died at age 85 in 1996. Bill Monroe is the only person to be admitted to the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, The Country Music Hall of Fame, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But the outlines in no way present the person who was Bill Monroe. 

Photo by Phil Zimmerman

The devil, as always, lies in the details. Knowing that I had not ever seen Bill Monroe perform live, and that I was not really well-versed in his music, I decided to write to some people who had known him and had written about him. I also knew that, for some reason, the Richard D. Smith book was seen as being controversial. As is my habit, I did not read any other reviews of the book, although a Google search reveals a number of them including one in the New York Times, usually the gold standard for book reviews. People I asked for opinions weren't reluctant to give them along with their permission to be quoted. One correspondent accuses Smith of relying too heavily on secondary sources, some of whom may have had axes of their own to grind and of choosing to emphasize the sensational at the expense of other, more important elements. Smith is accused by reviewers, in his own terms, of writing both a hagiography and doing a hatchet job. He argues that you can't make a person both a saint and a sinner. Some have argued that by placing a heavy emphasis on Bill Monroe's many love affairs, Smith does the man's creation and his person a dis-service. Others who knew and loved him assert his complexity and his sincerity.

Richard D. Smith's book is carefully researched and delves into the many aspects of this remarkable musician and person. He quotes Monroe as often saying that his songs are “true” stories. As an English teacher I used to seek to help my students understand the difference between “truth” and “factual” in interpreting literature. When one speaks of facts, it means that the events depicted actually happened and can be verified by others. Smith cites numerous people attesting to the facts of Bill Monroe's life and delivers multiple references to events when that is possible. “Truth” on the other hand refers to an inner reality reflecting the understanding of the person delivering the message. Thus many of Monroe's songs provide insights into the inner man that, because of the power of music, provide insight beyond the specific event depicted. The truths of a person's life are often seen through the experiences of those who knew him. This is as true with Bill Monroe as it is with anyone whose life is worthy of depiction. 
Bill Monroe was an intensely competitive man in almost all aspects of his life. His music seemed to have come to life at its finest when he was pushed to new heights by the great musicians who played in his bands through the years. His huge musical ego and competitiveness as well as the rigors of his road schedule probably drove many of the people away after a period of time. Others may have been driven out by Monroe. But try to imagine the progress and breadth that bluegrass music has achieved without the many musicians who left his band to form their own. Their unique contributions to the music have either thrived or died on the vine, but they all serve as outgrowths of Bill Monroe's synthesis of a variety of musical elements during his most creative years.

Photo by Phil Zimmerman 

Monroe managed to feud with most who left him, most notoriously his long fight to keep Flatt & Scruggs from becoming members of the Grand Old Opry and his successful campaign to keep Jimmy Martin out, too. In the end, many of these feuds were reconciled, but they were long and bitter. Monroe was large and imposing person who could coldly reject approaches from once close friends. One element that contributed to this was probably his bad eyesight combined with his vanity, which didn't permit him to wear eyeglasses in public. The baseball team Monroe's band formed to play local teams and his love of boxing are additional examples of his competitive nature only lightly dealt with in the biography. The ball team also served as a way to bring fans to the evening's musical performances and serves as a major contributor to Blue Grass Boys' story. Both the boxing and the baseball are under represented in the Smith bio.

Monroe was married twice and apparently had complex relationships with a number of other women, one of whom, Bessie Lee Mauldin, traveled with his band and lived as a common law wife with him for many years. Smith, according to his acknowledgments, had extensive access to many of the women in Bill's life, both lovers and friends, who seemed to have spoken openly to him. Their number suggest elements of neediness in his character which appear not to have particularly haunted him. Some have accused Smith of sensationalism for emphasizing Monroe's many and varied relationships with women. He had two acknowledged children.
Bill Monroe remained a creative force in bluegrass music almost until the end of his life. Early on he was a great innovator. It could be argued that as he aged and began to enjoy the recognition his music had gained, he became more a protector of what he had created than a continual innovator. Smith depicts Monroe as having become aware of his importance to his audience who seemed later in his life to “deify” Monroe's original style and to seek to limit new variations built on Monroe's elements. This has led to a continued tension between traditionalists and those who wish to continue to build on Monroe's foundation.

Richard D. Smith has written a full-bodied biography of an immensely talented yet enigmatic personality who was probably unknowable in his entirety. Bill Monroe's portrait in this book shows a number of qualities: loneliness, neediness, independence, pride, humility, vindictiveness, generosity, stinginess, brilliance, naivete, as well as an almost absolute need to control his environment. A person displaying such strong and contradictory character elements is sure to elicit differing reactions from those who knew him and those who learn about him. Smith's style is sometimes rather pedestrian, but at other times reaches almost lyrical heights. All in all, I feel as if I know infinitely more about Bill Monroe than I did when I began reading Smith's biography, and I look forward to new contributions to the Monroe literature, which I understand are in the pipeline.

Can't You Hear Me Callin': The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass by Richard D. Smith (2000) is published by Little Brown & Company and is available online (ISBN #0-316-80381-2) and from your local independent bookstore.

My thanks to Phil Zimmerman for permission to use pictures from his book Bluegrass Time, which I reviewed here. This book is still available and should be part of the collection of any real lover of bluegrass music.