I’m Going Back To Old Kentucky #125

From October 1, 2010 through to the end of September 2011, we will, each day, celebrate the life of Bill Monroe by sharing information about him and those people who are associated with his life and music career. This information will include births and deaths; recording sessions; single, LP and CD release dates; and other interesting tidbits. Richard F. Thompson is responsible for the research and compilation of this information. We invite readers to share any tidbits, photos or memories you would like us to include.

Today bluegrass photographer Becky Johnson shares some of her precious memories of the Father of Bluegrass Music …..

Favorite Bill Monroe Song: that’s got to be, The Northern Whiteclouds from Southern Flavor …1988, MCA Records. This song is my favorite, because I feel a special personal connection to it.

In the late 1980’s, Bill and the Blue Grass Boys were traveling up north regularly to perform at small venues like DeCordova Muesum’s outdoor amphitheatre in Lincoln, Massachusetts, clubs in and around Boston, like NightStage in Cambridge; and playing various bluegrass festivals like Winterhawk, in Hillsdale, New York, at Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival in Brunswick, Maine, to name a few. [I, of course, attended all of these events, and spent a lot of time backstage, hanging with The Father of Bluegrass music….]

>Bill wrote the song on the bus in 1988, while heading up north to Boston for yet another gig. He told me at the concert that night, that as he looked out the window, he “saw the most beautiful white clouds I had ever seen!”, and wrote the entire instrumental then and there.

I remember distinctly him telling the story of the song the same evening to the audience as well. Then, Tater Tate, on fiddle, sawed right into it……….??I can say that I am truly blessed to have known Mr. Bill on a personal level, as well as being an ardent fan. From 1979 onwards, every time Bill performed within a 400 mile radius of me, I would surely be there.

We became friends after a concert at the now defunct NightStage dinner club/intimate concert venue in Cambridge, in 1985, right after he had gotten his mandolin repaired from the tragic poker bashing it had received a couple of years earlier. I believe that was on February 25 [Ed. Quite right!], which is also my birthday! It didn’t hurt being a good looking, single woman, either!

Once Bill was the headliner at a one day festival called, “Bluegrass Heaven.” It took place at an outdoor amphitheater, at the DeCordova Museum, in Lincoln, Massachusetts., on July 18, 1989. The lineup featured: Bill Monroe and BG Boys, Alison Krauss & Union Station, New Grass Revival, The Del McCoury Band, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band. There were two separate shows, an afternoon show, and an evening one.

The venue was only 10 minutes from my little basement apartment, and not far from my hometown of Concord,. Because everyone in the band knew I was from there, I was appointed to take Bill someplace nearby to get supper, between shows. He sat in the front seat of my car rather stiffly, his right hand pressed up against the dashboard for safety [?].

Before we left, Bill had to take his nitro pills, so I went in the bus to retrieve them.?? I no longer had left my car, when I watched in amusement, as he rifled through my messy car, examining my cassette tapes, poking through old coffee cups and the like. Being mischievous, I quietly crept around to the drivers’ side door, and suddenly threw it open, and yelled, “Ah Haa! I caught you red-handed.” Shocked, he dropped the cassette he had in his hands, and quickly denied any wrong doing……we both got a good laugh out of it, though.

We drove through the pretty countryside to my favorite restaurant, the Willow Pond Kitchen. It was located on Lexington Road or as we locals like to call it, “The Battle Road.” ?[You remember the Revolutionary War began with skirmishes in Lexington and Concord, in 1775. The British troops marched solemnly down this very same road, towards the Old North Bridge, and to their eventual defeat……….my ancestors were Concord Minutemen, and I’m a Wicked Proud Yankee Transplant!!]?? Anyway, we parked in the dusty gravel lot, and walked slowly to the front door. “You’ve got a pretty dress on,” Bill sweetly remarked, as he opened the creaky screen door for me, and we went into the smoky, noise filled restaurant.

A single row of wooden booths with tall backs hugged the inside walls, and center aisle. Against the back wall were hung various fish trophies, framed B&W photos of the owner with numerous Hollywood legends, nick-nacks from the 50’s, old fishing nets, and lobster traps. A long horizontal mirror hung below the nick-nacks, and it was big enough to see your reflection in it, as you waited at the mahogany bar for a cold one. Stuffed, wild animals like skunks, opossums, raccoons, sat dusty , on the wall that separated the two main rooms. Old wooden wagon wheels dangled from the ceiling, covered in last year’s Xmas white lights. So did flintlocks, hunting rifles, powder horns, and ancient wine skins.

Bill and I found a booth nearby, in the aisle. He politely removed his white Stetson and laid it on the seat next to him. He was so handsome in his dark blue suit, dark tie, with a small silver cross on the lapel.?? I could easily tell by all the staring and giggling by some of my friends, that a lot of the customers had also been at the concert, were also eating here as well!

He was approached by a couple of fans, but we were mostly left to ourselves. This place served old country style home cooked food…….not for the health nut! Bill ate fried clam strips, with French fries and coleslaw and drank black coffee. “I know I shouldn’t eat this stuff,” Bill whispered to me as the plate laden with freshly deep fried clams was placed before him, “but I just can’t help it!”

I had a cup of homemade chilli, with Saltine crackers.

For dessert, we shared a piece of blueberry pie together – he took a bite, and pushed it across the table to me; I took a bite and pushed it back over to him. Afterwards, as we slowly made our way out the door, Bill, standing proud and tall in his white Stetson, made sure to stop and introduce himself with a strong handshake, and a friendly, “Howdy! My name is Bill Monroe. I’m from the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee!” to each and every customer he met, whether they knew who he was or not. Even the folks waiting in line outside were greeted just as warmly, as the ones inside.

We returned to the museum, and I enjoyed another wonderful evening show ….I was indeed in “Bluegrass Heaven!”

A book of Becky’s photos, Inside Bluegrass: 20 Years of Bluegrass Photography, was published in 1998.

And here is a video clip of Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys playing the tune Old Daingerfield, named after Daingerfield, Texas.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics.

A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe.

He wrote the annotated series I’m On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.