Memories of Bill Monroe

This appeared in Southern Living magazine - September 1999

I caught the first glimpse of who I really was the day I heard a Johnny Cash record in 1963. It touched my heart and brought music to life in me. But my soul didn't kick in until the summer of 1970 when I bought a 78 rpm record by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. The song was "Little Community Church," and it set my soul on fire.

Monroe sang like a man crying out from the wilderness. I knew from the sound of his band and the power of his mandolin that this man was baptized by a different kind of fire. His music set that same heat flying all over me. I started asking questions about Bill Monroe as I cut yards and sold greeting cards door-to-door to save money to buy more of his records.

My daddy bought me a mandolin and I met a truck driver in my hometown named John Wesley Cook who loved bluegrass music. He educated me on Bill Monroe.

Not long after that, I found out that Monroe was playing a concert in Jackson, Alabama. When he walked out onstage, he looked 12 feet tall. He took off his white hat and announced, "Tonight the Bluegrass Boys will be playing all gospel songs, so we won't be wearing our hats or playing 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' or 'Molly and Tenbrooks.' "

He added, "There have been a lot of powerful men who thought they could sing higher than Bill Monroe but I've yet to meet that man. The reason Bill Monroe can still sing good and high with a clear tenor voice is because he works hard, never takes a strong drink, nor smokes. I've only been late for the Grand Ole Opry two times since they made me a member in 19 and 39."

Monroe got my "amen" and my heart. After the concert, I bought one of his records and went backstage to get his autograph. He signed the album for me. When he handed it back, I told him I had just gotten a mandolin and wanted to learn to play like him. Monroe reached into his pocket, pulled out a mandolin pick and gave it to me.

"Go home, and learn to use it," he said.

The mandolin pick was my power source. I carried it to school every day. All it took it to remind me that I belonged out in the world making music instead of being in Mississippi at Philadelphia High School was to touch that pick. By the summer of 1972 I had started touring the back road circuits of the South with a gospel bluegrass band.

Our group occasionally crossed paths with national bands such as Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe. I made friends with all of them, but Monroe remained distant and aloof.

One day I asked him, "Are you really the father of bluegrass music?" He said, "Yes, sir, I am." I looked up at him and said, "Then who's the mother?"

His hand froze. They looked at him to see his response. It was a statement that would have gotten any of them fired. But Monroe simply laughed and said, "You need to learn a song called 'Rawhide.' "

During the fall of the same year, I was expelled from school, so I called a member of Lester Flatt's band to ask if I could come to Nashville and tour with the band for the weekend. The weekend trip turned into a career.

Lester gave me a job playing guitar and mandolin and the world went from black-and-white to Technicolor. My parents agreed to let me travel full time with Flatt while he and Monroe were playing a series of reunion concerts. We usually traveled caravan style, mainly to make sure each other's bus made it from show to show. Flatt had an old Greyhound bus converted for travel. Monroe owned an even older bus that was painted red, white and blue, with a marquee that read "Bluegrass Special."

Those buses were my classrooms. Many nights after a show, I would take my mandolin and ride Monroe's bus. He always had a new song to teach me. He'd play it, and I'd try to keep up. If I couldn't get it right, he'd never correct me. He'd simply play it again. If I didn't pick up the melody quickly, he'd move on to another song. Learn by doing, not by words.

For 25 years I watched him, studied him and loved him. At every point of change in my life, there was one thing that remained steady -- Bill Monroe and his music. He never compromised his beliefs in his music for the sake of trends or greater acceptance. I watched him continually evolve both musically and spiritually until his final Grand Ole Opry appearance on March 15, 1996.

A few months later, I spent an afternoon at Monroe's farm photographing him. We reminisced about the first time we met and he told me 60 years of stories in five hours time.

I asked him if he was happy. He told he without hesitation, "Yes, sir. I've played for several Presidents; I've been given awards by them. I've played all around the world. I've got lots of friends and there's some powerful good people out there pulling for me."

As we talked on, we picked up two mandolins. With the sun sinking, I joined him in playing one of my favorite songs of his called "Lonesome Moonlight Waltz." When we were finished, he said, "You learned good, boy."

When he died that September, the memorial service was held at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless and Ricky Skaggs -- along with me and many others -- played and sang him home. One of the preachers that eulogized him used phrases like "father of bluegrass" and"American original."

That he surely was. He played his style of music, sang in a woman's voice, and was ready to go fist to fist with anybody who challenged his way of doing it. God gave him an ability to hear melodies in the wind from some ancient world. He turned them into songs that the rest of us will cherish forever.

His music painted pictures of beauty for the world to see, and it made a world of difference to someone like me.

By Marty Stuart

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