Come Hither to Go Yonder: Playing Bluegrass with Bill Monroe

Article excerpt

Come Hither to Go Yonder: Playing Bluegrass with Bill Monroe. By Bob Black. Foreword by Neil Rosenberg. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2005. Pp. xiv + 188, foreword, acknowledgments, introduction, photographs, appendices, notes, biblio-discography, index. $40.00 cloth, $21.95 paper); From Every Stage: Images of America's Roots Music. By Stephanie P. Ledgin. Foreword by Charles Osgood. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005. Pp. xiv + 146, foreword, preface, acknowledgments, photographs, index. $38.00 cloth)

Bill Monroe was the Father of Bluegrass-and though some may argue about the extent to which this honorary title is actually warranted, it is certain that without Bill Monroe the style of acoustic country music he played for over six decades would not exist in its present form, or indeed even be called bluegrass. In the history of bluegrass music, no other band has the legendary status of the group that Monroe assembled in 1945 for WSM's Grand Ole Opry program in Nashville. This group included Lester Flatt on guitar and lead vocals, Earl Scruggs on banjo, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Howard Watts (also known as Cedric Rainwater) on standup bass, and of course featured Monroe on mandolin and high-tenor vocals. The band had a driving instrumental style that showcased young Scruggs's innovative rapid three-finger banjo breaks, as well as Monroe's mandolin playing, which was based on fiddle tunes he learned growing up in Rosine, Kentucky, from players such as Pendleton Vandiver, his beloved Uncle Pen.

The first bluegrass band electrified audiences and inspired countless young musicians to play bluegrass. But this particular version of the Blue Grass Boys lasted only three years. By 1948, both Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs had left to form their own highly influential group. This departure set a pattern for Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys, who through the years featured many young players who eventually moved on to form and play in other bands, including those fronted by Mac Wiseman, the Osborne Brothers, and Jimmy Martin and his Tennessee Mountain Boys.

Banjo player Bob Black, originally from Shenandoah, Iowa, has written an enjoyable retrospective of his own two-year stint as a very young member of the Blue Grass Boys in 1975 and 1976. Bluegrass aficionados will find much insider information and engaging storytelling here-for example, the teenaged Black's audition before Monroe was immediately followed by his first road trip with the band. The book includes interesting accounts as well of Monroe's annual bluegrass festival at Bean Blossom, Indiana, and of playing for live audiences on the weekly Grand Ole Opry radio program. Black also shares stories about his bandmates, particularly longtime fiddler Kenny Baker and guitarist-singer Ralph Lewis.

Black's memoir plainly shows that being a successful member of Bill Monroe's band required (beyond an extraordinary ability to learn and perform a particular style of music) endurance, character, and willingness to engage now and then in strenuous physical labor on Bill Monroe's farm outside Nashville. …