Report from the Bill Monroe Centennial in Owensboro

Pete Wernick, the estimable Dr. Banjo, has sent along a three-part report compiled during his attendance at last week’s Bill Monroe Centennial Celebration in Owensboro, KY. They were adapted from comments he posted to the internal IBMA email discussion list.

I felt I could not miss this event, no matter how much it didn’t fit my schedule. It was a great time, with a lot of love, some fine music, and some special highlights that you’re bound to hear about sooner or later. Since a couple of them are somewhat momentous, and I’ve not seen anything about it online, I thought I’d share some highlights with you all, the hardest of the hard-core bluegrass devotees!

On the good news side, the movie Powerful, about Bill Monroe, made its debut right on Bill’s 100th birthday, and it is a truly awesome and amazing piece of work. Would you believe Monroe is never on camera until the very end of the movie? We hear him sing and play on the soundtrack, and we see many, many interesting and rare photos (most of which I’ve never seen), but the meat of the 2-hour film is beautifully shot and edited stories from his stunning cavalcade of sidemen… including Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Hicks (both Bobby and Jack), Jim Shumate, Peter Rowan, Del McCoury, Byron Berline, Glen Duncan, Bill Keith, James Monroe, Lamar Grier, and on and on.

These men were at their ease, very-well recorded, telling it like it was, and the subject matter and editing makes the time just fly by. A deep and rich portrait emerges of the cross-eyed child who could lift a 1000 pound log, kick a mule in the jaw with “the sound of an exploding watermelon,” scare the devil out of his musicians, and melt your heart with a kind word or act, or soulful song.

This movie, by Joe Gray of Louisville, KY, is no less than a masterpiece in my opinion, with very high cinematic values, deeply insightful, and beautifully woven – probably the best movie ever about bluegrass, even surpassing the wonderful High Lonesome, Gather at the River and Bluegrass; Country Soul. I don’t know when the film will be available for future viewing, but don’t miss it!

Another work well worth checking out is the stage play Young Monroe which covers the master’s life from birth to his Opry debut in 1939. A succession of actors plays the part of the boy into manhood, and Charlie, Birch, Arnold Schultz, Bill’s mother and dad, and Uncle Pen are all in there.

The point of the play is historical accuracy, with a lot of music worked right into the score. Some is Monroe’s but there’s also the dubious addition of a number of (not unmusical) pieces that are not at all in Monroe’s style, sounding a little more like “contemporary folk.” Another minus, though hard to fault in the production by local Owensboro players, is the use of a recorded soundtrack of many of Monroe’s songs and tunes, with the actors attempting to lip-synch and finger-synch realistically to well-played and sung recorded versions of many favorites. They didn’t do too badly, but the feeling of falsity was distracting to me.

Nevertheless, the play itself is worthy of production, and will probably see life in many other venues. I would recommend it mostly in cases where the performers can actually both sing/play the music and do it justice. Naturally that’s a tall order, but that would be ideal.

I can’t omit mention of how great it was to see another great show by Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mt. Boys. This was their 5th stop in 5 days, and the band was in a groove and enjoyed itself while making that inimitable music. This was maybe 10 days after yet another hospital bout by Ralph, due to pneumonia. How I wish anyone could sing like he did, even after all that, never mind being 84. A wonder!

Curly Seckler at 92, Bill Clifton, Jesse McReynolds, Eddie and Martha with Tom Gray… what a treat to see these folks still giving their all and basking in the adulation of their lifelong fans! I was sorry to not see all of Monday’s or Wednesday’s performances, but “all active Hall of Famers” were there other than Doc Watson, who was home due to illness.

Part two of this report will deal with Earl Scruggs’ remarkable appearance, and a statement concerning the significance of his role in bluegrass music, spoken to the theater on the night of Monroe’s birthday.