The Father of Bluegrass Music, Bill Monroe was a major star of the Grand Ole Opry for over fifty years; a member of the Country Music, Bluegrass, Rock’n’Roll and the Songwriters Halls of Fame; and a legendary figure in American music.
In former Blue Grass Boy Tom Ewing’s book, Bill Monroe: The Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man, aptly published on September 13, 2018, on what would have been Monroe’s 107th birthday, he traces Monroe’s life, “From cradle to great,” as the publishers proclaim.
Bluegrass Today spoke briefly to the author ….
You worked for Bill Monroe for the last decade, or thereabouts, of his career; so, when did you decide that you wanted to write a book about him, please?
“I decided that I wanted to write about Bill’s life in 2000, after reading a biography that was “entertaining,” but wholly inadequate when it came to explaining how he lived his life and developed his music.”
You say, “This book is not necessarily a biography. It is, more accurately, a chronicle” … Please would you explain the thinking behind your approach ….
“When I wrote that the book is ‘more accurately, a chronicle,’ I meant that I was presenting Bill’s story chronologically. I believed that such an approach would provide a better understanding of the ways Bill’s life and music began and grew, and intertwined. The writer of the afore-mentioned biography did a lot of jumping around from place-and-time to place-and-time, attempting to summarize or analyze, and I felt that this just confused matters. Telling the story from beginning to end, I believe, was the best way to begin to understand it.”
In simple terms, Ewing traces Monroe’s rise to fame decade-by-decade, the chapters spanning the period 1892 to 1996, the year when Monroe passed away. A prologue and an epilogue book-end the narrative.
Tom Adler, someone very familiar with Monroe having been a regular attendee at Monroe’s music park at Bean Blossom, beginning in 1968, says this of Ewing’s book and the scrupulous nature of his work …
“Like most of those who’ve had the privilege of a personal connection with Tom Ewing, I’ve known for years of his painstaking, tenacious work on a proper biography of his former ‘Bossman,’ Bill Monroe, the Father of Blue Grass Music. Ewing is a stickler for getting things right, and his latest tome – like The Bill Monroe Reader, edited by Ewing and published by the University of Illinois Press nearly two decades ago – provides ample evidence of his diligence as a writer and researcher.
As Monroe’s last guitar player (from 1989 to 1996), Ewing was in a unique position to acquire some of the information about his employer and musical idol that is revealed in Bill Monroe: The Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man. Yet the years of meticulous research that complemented Ewing’s personal connection to Monroe is also evident in this new work and is supported by well over a thousand footnotes.
The quality of Ewing’s writing also deserves praise; he concisely, even eloquently, presents such complex historical developments as, for instance, the 1950s advent of rock’n’roll and the ‘folksong revival,’ in sufficient detail to point out their effects on Monroe and the burgeoning genre of bluegrass music, without ever getting side-tracked or diverted from his main goal: trying to give us the pertinent facts about Monroe’s life and music.
There is a level of detail in this book that no one, not even the most faithful dyed-in-the-wool bluegrass fans are likely to have encountered previously. For instance, while most close followers of Monroe know he was born near Rosine, Kentucky, on September 13, 1911, how many of us already knew, for example, that he was born with the assistance of a midwife, at 10:30 in the morning? Or that on the day before his birth his forty-one-year-old mother Malissa was enduring that year’s extreme heat wave by sitting on her porch, bare-footed in an old loose dress, seeking relief by playing music? Ewing provides hundreds of such engaging details and brilliant anecdotes about ‘the Blue Grass Man,’ and we are all the richer for it.
Many readers will, no doubt, race through the hundreds of pages of this new book when they first buy a copy, but they – and I – will then return to the text frequently for years to come, for its many clarifying presentations of key moments and events in Monroe’s life. Ewing’s book is, as of now, the ‘gold standard biography,’ and a copy belongs on the bookshelf of every real fan of bluegrass music.”
Adler is the author of the book Bean Blossom: The Brown County Jamboree and Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Festivals.
In this video, Bill Monroe talks about his famous uncle on his mother’s side of the family, Pendleton Vandiver, and pays his tribute to him in various performances of the song Uncle Pen. Monroe plays a fiddle tune learned from his uncle Going Across the Sea. In one segment Tom Ewing is featured singing Uncle Pen.
In this video, courtesy Jim Krause and Michael White, there is never-before-seen (as of 2011) footage of the 1986 Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival. It captures a Bill Monroe performance and interview, as well as comments about Bill Monroe from Sharon White and Doug Dillard, presented by The Weekly Special on WTIU.
Bill Monroe: The Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man is published by University of Illinois Press as part if their Music in American Life series
30 black & white photographs
Product Dimensions: 6.125 x 9.25 inches (15.5 x 5.1 x 23.5 cm)
Tom Ewing was the guitarist/lead singer of Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys for ten years. He is the editor of The Bill Monroe Reader and he wrote the now-discontinued Thirty Years Ago This Month column for Bluegrass Unlimited magazine.