I recently had occasion to correspond with Neil about his upcoming book, The Music Of Bill Monroe, written with the late Charles Wolfe, and due for a 2007 release by the University of Illinois Press.
It is described as a bio-discography, combining a complete list of all commercial recordings Monroe made in the course of 60 years, with essays that describe his musical career and the musicians with whom he was performing at various points during that time.
The discography begins with the first Monroe Brothers recording in February 1936, and carries to his last, with Billy and Terry Smith, in February of 1996. In all, more than 1,000 recorded performances are detailed in the book.
The authors collected the information necessary to compile the discography by accessing the recordings themselves, record company files, union session documents, interviews with musicians and producers, and the work of other researchers.
I asked Neil how they separated Monroe’s recorded work into segments for the book.
“The nine chapters are arranged chronologically (1936-38, 1939-41, 1942-45, 1946-49, 1950-56, 1957-62, 1963-72, 1973-1980 and 1981-96). Each consists of an essay discussing Monroe’s musical activities and introducing the musicians with whom he was involved during the period covered, followed by discographical data: each recording session with such information as date, place, personnel, pieces recorded, record numbers, etc.”
Rosenberg had become fascinated with Bill Monroe’s music as a young man, and began to build a list of his recordings after getting a chance to fill in with The Bluegrass Boys on banjo in 1961. That personal compilation eventually led to the publication of his first book.
“I had wanted to become more familiar with Monroe’s repertoire so that it would be easier for me to play his music. By 1973 my information on Monroe’s recordings was quite extensive; it was at that point that Bill Ivey of the Country Music Foundation approached me about doing a book for them on Monroe. I suggested the discography, and in 1974 the CMF published my book ‘Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys: An Illustrated Discography.’ The 2300 copies sold out by 1981, and it’s now a very rare book.”
In the late 1980s, Neil started collaborating with Charles K. Wolfe, a professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University and a noted scholar of southern American music, on several CD box sets for Bear Family. Wolfe passed away earlier this year, but their work together on the Bear Family box sets led to their further collaboration on this new Monroe bio-discography.
“We drew upon the material in my 1974 book for our notes on the Bear Family sets and then, as the third set went from 1969 to 1979, had to gather new information about Monroe’s recordings. Soon after Bill’s death Charles and I decided to pull together all our previous work for Bear Family in this book, and to include in addition commercially released visual recordings as well as recordings issued by companies other than Victor, Columbia and Decca/MCA, the major labels he recorded with during his career.
Charles and I each wrote introductory essays for this book. In his essay, Charles describes an experience he had when he was approached by Monroe’s management to write an ‘as-told-to’ biography of Monroe. The project did not go ahead because Monroe wasn’t interested in doing it. He felt that his music said what he wanted to say about his life and philosophy. We believed the best way of realizing Monroe’s vision would be to create as definitive a list of his recordings as we could. With it, anyone who wants to know about the content and development of the music of Bill Monroe has a complete list to consult.”
I asked Neil if he came across any information during his research that was new to him, or which surprised him.
“Yes, I discovered many new and interesting things. One example — I learned that, in 1988, Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys had a recording session with movie comedian John Candy (it has never been released).
Particularly interesting to me were the Columbia recordings made between 1945 and 1949. These are the only studio recordings of Monroe for which alternate takes exist. If you listen to them carefully–in the sequence in which they were made, which took me months to determine–you can learn a lot about how Monroe constructed his music. Also very interesting to me were the insights of producer Emory Gordy Jr., who produced some very fine albums in the 1980s.”
The Music Of Bill Monroe will be released in March of 2007. Pre-orders are being accepted now on the University of Illinois Press web site.
Neil Rosenberg was the subject of a GrassCast interview that ran in March of 2006, during which he discussed his book, Bluegrass: A History, which had recently been reissued in a 20th Anniversary paperback edition.
It is a substantial interview, running 18 minutes, which can be heard online.