Over the last few decades there have been several books written about the Father of Bluegrass. While some such as Tom Ewing’s Bill Monroe: The Life and Music of the Blue Grass Man dive deep into Monroe’s life journey, others are first-hand accounts by those who spent part of their professional careers as members of Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys. The newest of those is On The Bus with Bill Monroe: My Five-Year Ride with the Father of Blue Grass by Mark Hembree, who was Bill’s bass player from 1979-1984.
The book is organized into eight parts with multiple chapters in each one. The first part, titled simply Introductions, gives short, yet appropriate background on Bill Monroe as well as Hembree’s own personal story of growing up in Appleton, Wisconsin, and being exposed to Monroe’s music by his father early on. The next part, Muleskinner Blues, details the beginnings of Mark’s journey with Monroe discussing everything from his backstage audition with the band in Mukwonago, WI, his first performance as a Blue Grass Boy in Staunton, VA. Other sections such as Over The Waves detail the trips Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys took to Ireland and Israel. The chapters themselves are relatively short, but nonetheless they’re all packed with wonderful, humorous stories about Mark’s travels with Bill and his bandmates.
Each chapter of On The Bus with Bill Monroe is labeled as either Archival or Recollected. During Mark Hembree’s time as a Blue Grass Boy he kept a journal chronicling his experience. As a result, several of these entries are included in the book. While Hembree is brutally honest all throughout this memoir, the archival chapters particularly give perhaps the best glimpse you could get of what being a Blue Grass Boy entailed. In the recollected chapters, some events tend to be a bit jumbled or certain details get repeated occasionally, but that’s to be expected to a certain degree.
There are also several photos contained in this book. A few detail experiences that one probably wouldn’t believe unless they saw a picture, such as the time Hembree pranked Monroe by wearing a pair of Groucho glasses on stage in Bean Blossom, or when he played his upright bass on a wagon being pulled by mules during the Mule Day parade in Columbia, TN. There are also some pictures of his bandmates, one of which shows Kenny Baker playing fiddle while riding shotgun on the bus. As Hembree amusingly describes in the caption, Baker would “stop playing swing after Bill got up.”
On The Bus with Bill Monroe is an enjoyable memoir. While it does have some slight shortcomings, Mark Hembree does a good job of recounting his five years as a Blue Grass Boy. The chapters are short, but there’s a whole lot to digest. It’s a valuable book and should be in the library of any Bill Monroe fan or those with interests in music history.