Friday, May 1, 2015

The Bluegrass Hall of Fame by Fred Bartenstein, Gary Reid and Others - Book Review

The Bluegrass Hall of Fame: Inductee Biographies 1991 – 2014 by Fred Bartenstein, Gary Reid & Others (International Bluegrass Music Museum, 2014, 242 pages, $39.95) is an ambitious and largely successful effort to present mini-biographies of all the fifty-seven bluegrass performers and industry people inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, now located at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky. In order to remain within limitations of space and price the writers and the producers had to make a number of choices that may compromise the book as a work of art from the perspective of some people who purchase it. Nevertheless, the book serves as an attractive and informative addition to the coffee table, while providing information about each of the interesting and diverse group of people now inhabiting the Hall of Fame.

The layout is complex and useful. Each profile presents major points in an essay format roughly three pages long. Interspersed in the narrative are quotations from articles, interviews, and liner notes about the subject, sometimes quotations from the honorees themselves. The members of the Hall of Fame were chosen by IBMA committees, and are not a function of the book's authors. Sidebars present highlights including major dates of birth and death, instrument noted for, number of songs composed and copyrighted, the subject's early influences, the most important event that led to their being well known,and the bands they played with. Perhaps the most interesting sidebar comments can be found in sections called “Led the Way,” which details the influence the person had on others, and “By the Way,” containing interesting tidbits not found in the narrative. This structure offers lots of interesting details, even minutiae, that readers might wish to know or find valuable. The book contains a reasonable index, but no list of references or a bibliography, both of which would increase the research value of the book. Perhaps publishing this information online would be a valuable adjunct.

In order to maintain a reasonable price that would seem accessible to most of the bluegrass audience and to visitors to the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, KY (the sponsor of this project), compromises in quality had to be made. The book is too small to dominate the coffee table it is intended to inhabit, and the quality of photo reproduction for many of the photographs used is sometimes marginal. Much of this can be explained because the choice of photographs, almost all in color, reaches back to capture most of these giants in their prime or even youth. The kind of book I have in mind would have reached or exceeded the $100 level, which would have made its cost prohibitive. There is a heavy reliance on liner notes in the narrative. Such material is often heavier on marketing than on analysis, making it of marginal value for accurate assessment of an artists work. Many of the pioneers of country and bluegrass music developed their careers through making grueling trips to local radio stations from which they broadcast live fifteen minute of half-hour shows before rushing off to a gig. The list of long disappeared, small, AM radio station call numbers sometimes becomes overwhelming to me, although I know specialists glory in them. Overall, however, the book provides a satisfactory overview of those who pioneered the music.

This is not a book intended to be read through, but, rather, one to dip into, which is exactly what coffee table books are for. Here's how Wikipedia describes coffee table books: “A coffee table book is an oversized, usually hard-covered book whose place is for display on a table intended for use in an area in which one would entertain guests and from which it can act to inspire conversation. Subject matter is predominantly non-fiction and pictorial or a photo-book. Pages consist mainly of photographs and illustrations, accompanied by captions and small blocks of text, as opposed to long prose. Since they are aimed at anyone who might pick the book up for a light read, the analysis inside is often more basic and with less jargon than other books on the subject.” Because of this, the term "coffee table book" Careful reading of The Bluegrass Hall of Fame often elicits useful insights. Bill Monroe, for instance, is clearly a giant. A genius whose musical vision changed country music forever. He was also a difficult, combative, jealous, and tortured soul who could be small and mean. These qualities, however, only appear in the profiles of those who worked with him, and not in his own entry. The line between analysis and hagiography is a tough one to negotiate, and sometimes this volume misses the mark.

Fred Bartenstein

Fred Bartenstein has performed many roles in blugrass music, including magazine editor, broadcaster, musician, festival  MC, talent director, scholar, and consultant. He was 2013 winner of the IBMA Print/Media Person of the Year and Liner Notes author. He was a recipient of the IBMA Distinguished Achievement Award in 2006.

The Bluegrass Hall of Fame: Inductee Biographies 1991 – 2014 by Fred Bartenstein, Gary Reid & Others (International Bluegrass Music Museum, 2014, 242 pages, $39.95) will prove itself to be a desirable book to many bluegrass fans. The subjects of the profiles in it each deserve more extensive showcasing, both for their contributions and their complexities. Sitting at a picnic table at a festival with relaxed musicians who played with and knew these people provides wonderful, and often insightful or hilarious, insights into the strengths and foibles of these people often creates a deeper understanding of the bluegrass greats. Such reminiscences should be collected and organized while those who traveled and played with the greats are still here to share the stories. Probably such books lie more in the realm of university presses than museum showpieces. Nevertheless, The Bluegrass Hall of Fame: Inductee Biographies 1991 – 2014 will bring pleasure to many. I received a copy of the book for free in payment for the picture I contributed to it.