Thursday, January 20, 2022

On the Bus with Bill Monroe by Mark Hembree - Book Review


It was the late seventies. Mark Hembree was an itinerant musician playing bluegrass with a Denver-based band called Monroe Doctrine. The band broke up, he moved back to Wisconsin, and a few months later happened on a chance to audition for Bill MonroeThe tryout went well, but he was still surprised when Monroe called a few days later and offered him the job. Two weeks later, he joined the band. That was the beginning of five years learning to work with the father of bluegrass music, a lesson that was never completely learned, always evolving and completely unpredictable. 

Hembree’s approach to writing On the Bus with Bill Monroe is anecdotal, and incidental, as if it were based upon stops along the way or incidents on the bus. Each brief chapter presents a complete incident illuminating an aspect of life on the road with Bill Monroe, his character, its hardships, quirks, strengths, needs, great vision, ability as a teacher, and sense of the immortality of  his music. 

Mark Hembree approaches Bill Monroe from a distance of forty years after spending five years in his band, using a macro lens to put a microscope on his experience. He adds nuance to his time with Monroe, putting the man’s life into perspective in ways that nothing else I’ve read about Monroe has succeeded in accomplishing. His writing is fresh, illuminating, open, and delightful.

Hembree’s chapter on legendary fiddler Kenny Baker may define his writing style as well as any. Instead of providing an encyclopedic discussion of  one of the defining fiddler's roles within the band, Hembree paints in haiku-like fine strokes, defining the man, his music, and his greatness. If I want to learn more, this provides me with the platform from which I can dive but it’s all I need to know to begin to understand the importance of Baker and his music to Bill Monroe.

Meanwhile, encounters with Monroe himself illustrate all the strengths and flaws that come together to make up his genius. His tight-fistedness alongside his sometime generosity, his flintlike hardness beside his sometimes warmth and understanding, his commitment to his originality and awareness of change. And so many other internal contradictions making up this complex genius.

More than one hundred and sixty musicians came and went during the history of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, some became famous in their own right, others are hardly remembered today. Each contributed in some way to the legend of the man and the music. But Bill Monroe assured the purity of his music, retained a constancy uniquely his own, always recognizable, whoever was in the band, no matter where in they were, from the smallest Appalachian village to Jerusalem, to the White House.

Mark Hembree

Mark Hembree joined the Blue Grass Boys in 1979 after a stint playing bass with Monroe Doctrine. He played with the Monroe until 1984, when he joined the Nashville Bluegrass Band as a founding member with Alan O’Bryant, Pat Enright, and Mike Compton. After a bus accident, he retired to a publishing career in Wisconsin and now edits and writes as well as playing bluegrass with the Mark Hembree Band and western swing with the Best Westerns

Bill Monroe & The Blue Grass Boys play Rawhide


The White House - 1980

Many books have sought to capture the quality of the man who created such an enduring legend, planted such vibrant and rich seeds, commanded such fear and respect. There’s almost an industry of scholarly study devoted to discovering the real Bill Monroe. Perhaps the incidents and anecdotes Mark Hembree brings together with his light, mostly humorous touch do as good a job as any of the much heavier pieces of serious scholarship. He presents a complex genius who emerged from poverty, illiteracy, and the Great Depression with a massive chip on his shoulder as well as great, unrecognized ability, fighting for every advantage he could achieve. The details are available in the many books. The core personality emerges in the stories lovingly, humorously, and admiringly told by Mark Hembree. On the Bus with Bill Monroe: My Five Year Ride with the Father of Bluegrass Music by Mark Hembree is published by the University of Illinois Press, a volume in the series Music in American Life. It is available in April of 2022 from all the usual outlets.