Until his death in 1996, Bill Monroe was so formidable a presence that it was almost impossible to discuss him in human terms. He was too towering, too original to fit the normal templates of analysis. While he keeps Monroe's musical genius at the forefront, biographer Richard D. Smith also reveals a man who was arrogant, petty, jealous, volatile, generous, solicitous, and a relentless womanizer. In other words, his real life measured up to his myth. A graceful writer and a dogged researcher, Smith begins with the assertion that Monroe was "the most broadly talented and broadly influential figure in the history of American popular music." That's saying a lot considering the immense cultural impact of such titans as George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong. But Smith has a case. Elvis Presley's first Sun Records single was a hopped-up version of Monroe's already famous composition, "Blue Moon Of Kentucky." Buddy Holly mimicked elements of Monroe's style on the way to creating his own. Jerry Garcia trekked all the way across the country to audition for Monroe's band, lost his nerve and went back to California, soon after to found the Grateful Dead. In addition, virtually all the architects of modern bluegrass music got their early training as members of Monroe's famed Blue Grass Boys.
William Smith Monroe was born in 1911 in rural western Kentucky, far from the Appalachian Mountains with which bluegrass music is now most identified. He was not from a poor family, but he grew up with hard work and few amenities. The last of eight children, Monroe was afflicted by poor vision and a shyness made bearable by an early-blossoming talent for music.
The nucleus of Monroe's distinctive sound, as it emerged over many years, was his high mournful tenor voice and precise, rapid-fire mandolin picking. Moreover, he was a prodigious songwriter who often idealized his bucolic upbringing in his lyrics. All these elements supported by the ensemble of acoustic guitar, fiddle, banjo, and bass came together to produce the music that would ultimately be called "bluegrass." Besides illuminating Monroe's art and character, Smith explains the place of bluegrass in the folk music movement, as well as how and why bluegrass festivals came into being. The mercurial Monroe never settled on an official biographer. In Smith, we have something better.
Edward Morris writes on music, politics, and book publishing from Nashville.