In The Shadow of Bill Monroe: IBMA Keynote Address

lil_mike_reedThis post is a contribution from Mike Reed, one of our 2010 IBMA correspondents. See his profile here.

The bluegrass world has seen a lot of changes over these many years. One that would probably have been unthinkable to many of those in the 70’s would be that Sam Bush, one of the leaders of the “Newgrass” revolution, would the be the Keynote speaker for the kick-off of the IBMA’s 25th Anniversary. That it has happened is a tribute to both the Bluegrass community – and Sam Bush.

Mr. Bush told the story Bill Monroe, of the dramatic changes he made to country music, to the role that he played in the development of the many musicians that passed through the Bluegrass Boys, and to the nurturing of younger musicians that he met along the way. Within this context, Mr. Bush told the story of his musical education, development and his current role in the music industry. How first it was just the sounds and presence of Bill Monroe that motivated him and then later after meeting him how he was a constant source of inspiration.

While Mr. Bush barely touched on the years that the Newgrass Revival fell out of favor with the traditional Bluegrass audience -and Bill Monroe himself – he noted that even then Bill was a constant source of inspriation – not only by how he played but also how he carried himself in public.

While Mr. Bush noted that Bill Monroe was often open to other approaches to the music by other musicians, he was adamant about his approach. He told the humorous story (often retold, but still worth another tellin’) of when Kenny Baker asked Courtney Johnson (of Newgrass Revival) if he would fill in on banjo for the Bluegrass Boys. Courtney was willing, but when they approached Bill his response was “No Sir!” When pressed he replied, “No Sir, I will not have it.” When pressed still again Bill asked what the type of music they played was called and Courtney replied “Newgrass.” Bill replied simply “Yes, I hate that.”

Sam Bush quieted the audience when he stated that for years he shied away from being called a Bluegrass musician, not because he was ashamed, but because of the respect that he has for the music. He noted that if a musician can play Bluegrass well he can play any kind of music.

Many challenges face the future of Bluegrass Music. According to Sam Bush, one key is how to move forward and stand on our own, now that the music is moving to younger hands? He expressed dismay that many young musicians have never listened to Bill Monroe and the other legends of our musical heritage. These musicians have to be part of our living tradition. Our mission needs to be to nurture today’s young musicians just as Bill Monroe nurtured Sam Bush and his generation.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass Music must continue to be a major influence on our music and musicians. For his Keynote Address, Sam Bush took the general and made it specific, showing how his development and success as a musician benefited beneath Monroe’s shadow. We need to see that the next generation benefits from that shadow as well.