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Tongue Tied: Bill Monroe at 100

13 September 2011

I’ve been thinking about the centennial of Bill Monroe’s birth for over a year, and now that the date— September 13, 2011— is upon us, I find myself undone by the challenge of summarizing Monroe’s significance. It occurred to me that I should let the music do the talking, so I dug back through my cache of videos. I found several recent performances of Monroe tunes— or tunes associated with Monroe— both by up-and-coming and established musicians that I had yet to share, but none of the clips could encompass the breadth of the Father of Bluegrass’s achievement. If I picked an instrumental, I overlooked the high and lonesome harmonies; if I picked an original composition, I overlooked the old mountain tunes that Monroe revived. In the end, I felt it best not to offer the work of musical acolytes and offspring and instead to go back to the source…

The compositions that Monroe called “true songs” are among my favorites. They manage to sound as old as the hills, even as they tell tales drawn directly from Big Mon’s outsized biography. The number featured here, “My Little Georgia Rose,” is said to be one of these “true songs,” and now is perhaps not the occasion to spell out its presumed meaning in full. Let’s just say that a painful revelation may lie beneath its cheerful veneer. By most accounts, Monroe was complex and often difficult, yet however we may judge him as a man, surely a large part of his genius as an artist was his fearlessness in putting the whole sprawling mess of his life out there in his music.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying to work my way through all the Monroe tunes I have in my collection. I’ve been struck both by how many of the tunes that he wrote or popularized have become standards, and how many more are still lying fallow, waiting to be rediscovered by another generation of pickers. Finally, I’ve been amazed all over again at how he used the vehicle of bluegrass to synthesize, adapt and reinvent the sounds of everything from the delta blues to the traditional music of the British Isles. He was a geyser of musical ideas, and we continue to be washed in that fountain a hundred years after his birth.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S. A quick note on the Bluegrass Boys featured in the clip above: The banjo player is a very young Bobby Hicks, who is taking a break from his usual fiddling duties and playing Monroe’s own Vega banjo. Jackie Phelps— normally the banjo player at the time— is on guitar, and Ernie Newton is playing bass with a “brush bass” attachment that he invented. For the truly obsessive viewers who are dying to know, the announcer at the beginning is Faron Young.

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