Long Way Back Home - Bill Monroe and the Making of Bluegrass

By Olsen, Eric P. | The World and I, December 2002 | Go to article overview
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Long Way Back Home - Bill Monroe and the Making of Bluegrass

Olsen, Eric P., The World and I

The father of bluegrass wove a lonely life and a keen sensitivity to nature into a new musical genre that is now achieving unprecedented popularity.

Rosine, Kentucky (population 65) is not much to look at. A 1930s-era country store, a weathered barn, and a cluster of nondescript houses sum up the charms of this rural hamlet some 120 miles west of Louisville. But for some visitors, the village is hallowed ground--the elusive "home" celebrated in the searching and plaintive songs of Rosine's most famous son, Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass.

In all of American music and among the pantheon of its acclaimed artists, Monroe remains unique: He is both the originator and, by consensus, the greatest practitioner of a distinct musical idiom. As songwriter, virtuoso mandolin player, and singer, Monroe gave definition to bluegrass. Now, six years after his death at 84, the full impact of his inspiration is beginning to be measured.

In April 2002, a newly renovated, International Bluegrass Music Museum opened its doors in nearby Owensboro, the three-million-dollar investment largely a testament to his legacy. And in Rosine, Monroe's long-neglected homeplace, as it has come to be known, has been acquired and restored by the recently incorporated Bill Monroe Foundation.

"I believe he was the single most prolific musician who ever lived," says Butch Robins, a banjo player with Monroe in the 1970s. Robins has come to the homeplace in conjunction with the museum dedication with a handful of other former Blue Grass Boys, the Monroe ensemble that forever identified the genre with its Kentucky roots.

"Here is a guy who started playing music as a teenager," Robins says, "who never did anything much but play. He was able to enjoy the better part of seventy years as a musician. Beyond the pure talent, he had the work ethic. At the end he was still a phenomenal musician, a really powerful man. I think in a hundred years his music will be as immortal as any music.

"Monroe was an experience," Robins says with a shake of his head. "I hear some other Blue Grass Boys saying he was like a father to them and I have to wonder, were we working for the same boss?

"You didn't play with him," Robins adds, "you played against him. He was like a rock. You can ask any musician. There has never been a rhythm player who was his equal."

Monroe conceded as much in an interview cited in Neil Rosenberg's Bluegrass: A History: "All the way through, bluegrass is competition, with each man trying to play the best he can, be on his toes. ... It works that way. They'll still be friends, but they'll work hard to be better than the other."

The $200,000 restoration of the house where Monroe grew up has reclaimed not just a physical structure but, some would say, the very birthplace of an indigenous musical genre. "This room here, this fireplace, you can almost say this is the place where bluegrass was born," says foundation executive director Campbell Mercer, a veterinarian by training but also an accomplished bluegrass performer and self-described "number one fan" of Monroe. "This is where his Uncle Pen would sit and play the fiddle. This is where he learned the music. I saw a film of Monroe when he came back to visit one time, and he just touched the walls and ran his hands over all the familiar places. It was unquestionable what it meant to him.

"Monroe loved nature. Loved nature. And there's something about the music that just seems to go with the land. Some people say bluegrass needs to change to survive. But that's like saying the maple trees need to change, or the Adirondack Mountains need to change. That doesn't make any sense to me."

Just two years ago, incredibly, the Monroe homeplace was falling into ruin in near-total obscurity. Mercer, who hosts a bluegrass program on the Outdoor Channel, came to Rosine in May 2000 to attend a festival.

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