Fall Travel: In Kentucky, searching for Bill Monroe’s bluegrass spirit

September 15, 2011

We’d set off in the dark. The road got quiet and crooked. The truck’s headlights panned over twisty pavement and old pine. Our horizon became blanketed in tall branches as if we were getting sucked farther and deeper into a thick, old nest.

“I mean, this thing is so far back, you know you have to fight for daylight out there,” Bill Burden had joked.

Burden’s face glowed from behind the wheel. A lean 73-year-old who had lost neither his hair nor his teeth, he made for an overly gleeful, earnest guide. He knew these western Kentucky backwoods like an old song.

Burden is something of a multi-hyphenate hillbilly, as comfortable serving on his county’s tourism board as he is singing and playing rhythm in his jam sessions. He used to sell auto parts out of a salvage yard and his own country singles out of his car.

After another half-hour’s push up through the dark, we finally arrived at Free Zion, a white, one-room church founded in 1890 atop a small hill in Grayson County. One, maybe two lights illuminated the way inside. It was a Thursday night in early November, and Burden had a revival to play.

I had come looking for Bill Monroe, or at least what was left of the father of bluegrass’s spirit. The man had invented an entire genre: a backwoods sound that transformed porch song and field holler into high art. It was speedy and full of notes, sure. But it was also a deepest strain of soul music — hard as wood, sad as lost time. I wanted to see the Monroe legacy that hadn’t been pinned behind museum glass or given honorary title to a small stretch of two-lane.

Monroe would have turned 100 this year. But my knowledge of him was mostly through a greatest-hits compilation, a Smithsonian Folkways live record and some vinyl I never got around to playing much. When I read about him, his voice and sound had been described as “high lonesome” to the point of cliche. The man kind of stayed that way, churning out “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Uncle Pen” and other favorites on the never-ending festival/barn/high school gym circuit. His glasses and sideburns got thicker, but Monroe’s music never did change with the times.

Monroe died in 1996, still larger than life but as unknowable and as silently imposing as a bust up on Mount Rushmore. I had just one long weekend in the Bluegrass State to see if I could still hear him and understand him. What better place to begin than where he got his start: in church.

Burden didn’t have so much a band as a family on stage with him. Darrell Madison, 57, Burden’s singing and strumming partner known as Big Foot (for his size 14s), was joined by Ed Edwards, 64, on mandolin, who is Madison’s brother-in-law. They’ve played together for about 30 years. After a while, Burden called up two of his nieces. He has sung with Jackie Tarrance, 48, and Kathy Taylor, 54, for their entire lives.

When they all joined together, it sounded like history. It wasn’t virtuosic or pitch-perfect. It could have been lost recordings from Alan Lomax’s famous “Southern Journey” sessions or just another night around the living room, impassioned and effortless. But Burden wasn’t so satisfied. Looking out into the congregation, he spotted Taylor’s daughter, Cheyanne — his great-niece with her dyed black hair and Class of 2011 T-shirt. He nodded to her and her friends. “You kids going to help us sing?” he asked.

Cheyanne let out a big sigh and rolled her eyes. Then said yes. She and her friends got up and joined Burden’s crew on the small wooden stage. They stood in the back and quietly mumbled their way through the call-and-response “I’ll Meet You by the River.” The girls hugged their hymnals to their chests.

“How about one more?” Burden asked. “Get your lungs pumping.”

Cheyanne, 17, opened her hymnal to the church’s version of “Jesus Hold My Hand,” stood a little straighter and succumbed. Everything got bright and really loud.

As I wander through this pilgrim land

There is a friend who walks with me

Leads me safely through the sinking sand, it is the Christ of Calvary

When it was over, Kathy said, “There’s nothing better than when your family sings together.”

“That’s all we do together for fun,” Jackie chimed in.

Near the door, I caught up with Cheyanne. “I feel security,” she said, when she’s singing with her family. “I can just let loose.”

Burden goes for that sentimental stuff, too. But there’s a higher purpose. He’s trying to keep this music, and maybe this area, alive. “I like to be sure we use them as much as we can,” Burden said on the ride home. “Someday, they’ll be the ones that take over for us.”

* * *

Bill Monroe didn’t live in the region too long, but he knew the importance of sharing a microphone. In the mid-’70s, Monroe called on Burden to join a little jam session he had cooked up. Monroe had swung back into his home town of Rosine, a half-hour from Owensboro, for a weekend. He had been lying low in a trailer on land he owned and had called around for local reinforcements to provide a little merriment. Burden jumped at the chance.

Burden and his bandmates started playing as soon as they arrived. Monroe and a crowd were eating finger food in the kitchen area. Burden decided to take a chance on “I Haven’t Seen Mary in Years,” a weepie that Monroe and his son, James, had released. Monroe heard the first few bars and raced — with a mouthful of food — to the mike just in time to tenor it.

“Ah, Lord, he had that tenor perfect, man,” Burden recalled. “I mean it was perfect. His voice was clear. It was high. And it could go anywhere.”

Unlike older brother Charlie, Monroe never settled down here. He left at 18 for labor jobs with his brothers in the Chicago area. He recorded his greatest songs elsewhere and recruited his Blue Grass Boys out of factories and farms nowhere near Rosine. He set up his famous festival in Indiana and his working farm in Tennessee. He even told an interviewer during one bittersweet homecoming at the height of his ’60s folk-revival relevance: “People didn’t know me when I left. Well, I don’t know them now.”

Rosine’s grid stretches no bigger than a major league ballpark. Room enough for just two stores and some small, anonymous homes. Near the Methodist church, founded in 1889 and the site of Monroe’s funeral, there were rusted car heaps. A little farther off, horses drank from orange and blue plastic buckets. Everything mandated walking.

If anyone was around on the afternoon I arrived in Rosine, they were all at Woosley’s General Store. Inside, the store sold chili dogs and bean soup and country-fried steak on the cheap, with an ashtray on every table. It was the kind of place where people either jammed in the back or nursed a coffee all day waiting to gossip with whomever walked in. Within five minutes of my sitting down, a harmonica-playing local named Barb invited me to her just-announced wedding that weekend, promising all-you-can-eat barbecue and plenty of bluegrass.

The route to Rosine and Monroe’s birthplace on Jerusalem Ridge shows few signs that any business has struck gold highlighting its proximity to the historical landmark. On and off Bill Monroe Boulevard, the Muffler House gives way to Big Daddy’s Towing to a Save-A-Lot. Behind and all around, farmland has been scrubbed down to the stubs, just so many flat notes.

Downward mobility and modernity had conspired against the man. The massive Wal-Mart had a music department — perhaps the only one left in all of Ohio County. It didn’t carry a single Monroe CD.

Burden took me to two gravesites: first to his pioneering, banjo-playing uncle’s, Cletus Smith, and then to Monroe’s monument, lodged in a small plot behind small homes in the center of Rosine. At the end of the long slab, Monroe’s son James had inscribed: “WALK SOFTLY AROUND THIS GRAVE FOR MY FATHER BILL MONROE RESTS HERE AS THE BLUE MOON OF KENTUCKY SHINES ON.”

“The greatest thing he ever did for our county was being buried here,” Burden said. “He didn’t have to be.” The town could certainly use the tourists who make the pilgrimage from all around the world. But there’s more than enough reason to come here.

On Friday morning, at Monroe’s childhood home turned museum, Dennis Huff, 67, my tour guide, greeted me outside. He barely got through the first bedroom, with classic Monroe pictures, the Monroe rocking chair and candle in the window, before wanting to share some gossip.

“You want the whole story?” Huff asked.

Of course.

“Charlie had stolen Bill’s wife,” Huff insisted, repeating a well-refuted story that allegedly accounted for the breakup of their brother act, and set him out on his own with his Blue Grass Boys. “You can call it a rumor if you want.” Huff claimed he heard it directly from Charlie himself. Charlie died in 1975 at age 72.

Like most of Rosine, Huff seemed to prefer Charlie’s easygoing charms to Monroe’s celebrity. “I call Charlie a gentle giant,” Huff said. “[Bill] was a hard person to understand.”

Sharon Autry, 61, another volunteer, sensed things were going off script and politely relieved Huff.

Autry took me through the rest of the house filled with old LPs and curios. It was hard not to notice what was missing: musical instruments. Monroe’s famous “Million Dollar Mandolin” is housed in Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Later, I met Tom Ewing, 64, at a back table at Woosley’s for coffee. Ewing sang and played guitar as part of the last incarnation of the Blue Grass Boys from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s. He edited “The Bill Monroe Reader” in 2000 and is working on a biography.

One night, Ewing remembered, “we were headed north to play a show, and we left about midnight, probably from the Opry. Everyone went to bed on the bus. The bus is rolling on. We stopped in the middle of the night somewhere to get fuel, and Bill woke up when the bus stopped. Bill always woke up. He went inside the truck stop to get a piece of pie and cup of coffee. And while in there, he usually went around and introduced himself to everybody if he wasn’t recognized by whoever was in the truck stop. He’d go around and introduce himself: ‘How do you do? I’m Bill Monroe from the Grand Ole Opry.’

“One of the guys in there refused to believe him,” Ewing continued. “Bill came out to the bus and woke everybody up and told us to get our clothes on and come in the truck stop with our instruments. ‘Get your music and come on,’ he said.” They played their standard set in the middle of the truck stop’s seating area.

Monroe’s death is still something Ewing has a hard time getting over. The mourning hasn’t ended and probably never will. The hardest part is playing the music. “It’ll never be the same,” he said. “I’ll never stand next to anyone who’s that attuned to playing music, who has that kind of ear, who can sing with that ease and range. It ain’t going to happen ever again.”

That fact doesn’t stop Burden and company from organizing shows at the barn next door to Woosley’s every Friday night. Monroe played the barn twice before his death.

Eleanor Bratcher, 69, had operated the general store and had started the shows at the barn years ago.

Bratcher remembers Monroe’s first appearance at the barn. She had to help him to the stage. “He knew me, and he took my hand and wanted me to bring him on in,” she told me backstage. “And he got right there, stood there, and he turned around and said to me, ‘Ms. Bratcher, am I welcome here? Am I welcome here?’ I said, ‘Bill, you go on that stage and play your heart out. This is your home, and this is your place.’

* * *

“You’re gonna get squeaky,” Randy Lanham warned.

The fiddle felt light and brittle in my hands and shone catalogue-new. Lanham, 38, had just commenced a beginner’s class in a second-floor room in the International Bluegrass Music Museumin Owensboro at the edge of the Ohio River. The newbies who had turned out included tweens, adults and maybe a grandparent or two.

Throughout the museum, Monroe artifacts and reminders of his legacy have been preserved and vetted by scholars. I had come here to see how Lanham was teaching something that had been taught in living rooms and porches, one jam at a time. People came to this museum to learn bluegrass history.

“Move slow,” Lanham cautioned after telling me how to wrap my fingers around the fiddle’s neck. I think he was telling me to not be so nervous with the instrument. My hands sawed and clawed over unfamiliar taut strings; it already sounded like a horror movie in here.

Now it was my turn to join in on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

And I immediately produced the squeak.

“Keep your bow moving fast,” Lanham said. “Use a lot of it.”

After one, maybe two runs through the song, Lanham stopped everyone for a history lesson. He introduced his grandfather John Lanham, 86, who taught him everything.

“You do not have to learn this song the way that I teach it,” Randy Lanham encouraged. “I teach you songs the way I hear them in my head. That’s not always exactly right. It’s the way that I remember it, right? You may remember these songs but hear them a little differently. The way that Granddad taught me some songs, I don’t play them exactly the way he taught me.”

Lanham went on. “That’s something that’s real cool about bluegrass and traditional music. ... This music has been passed down from generation to generation. Granddad learned from his dad, his uncles that played. Right?”

“And my granddad,” said Lanham’s granddad.

“And his granddad,” Lanham said.

* * *

Ralph Stanley II, 32, was sitting in the passenger seat of his gray Chevy minivan spitting tobacco juice into a soda bottle. Bluegrass fans call him “Ralph II.”

He was one of the first in the grass lot outside Meadowgreen Park’s Bluegrass Music Hall. To get here, he followed the handmade signs along the outskirts of Clay City, toward a big barn among a lot of other barns. It’s three hours east from Rosine, but just as empty.

Ralph II was 2 years old when he first went on stage, 5 or 6 when he learned his first guitar chords and barely eligible for his learner’s permit when he took the lead singing job with his dad full time. He has been to Meadowgreen Park close to 20 times. This was his first on his own.

I had spent the past two days listening to stories and songs from people who had learned bluegrass from a record player or at least without much of an audience. I wanted to know what it’s like to learn the music as the son of one its founders, a man whose voice is as deep and craggy as a coal mine, who is treated now as some kind of old-time oracle, who has his own museum.

The family name is hard to escape. Ralph II’s uncle, Carter Stanley, was his father’s singing partner.

Ralph II never did want to do anything else, and he didn’t want to just coast on his name. He has earned a quiet living, and some success on the bluegrass charts, without becoming a replica of his father. There’s a straightforward integrity to his songs and his persona. “I don’t sing like Dad, and I don’t talk like Dad,” he said. “I’m different.”

Inside, the converted barn held seats from an old school. A giant buffalo head lorded over the stage. A small kitchen sold fried apple pies, and coffee for 50 cents. Never mind the wood paneling. It felt as if I had walked into the 1950s.

Behind Ralph II’s merch table, the wall had dozens of newspaper clippings and old snapshots under the title “Blue Grass History.” Mostly, there were obits: Joe Val, Tommy Franks, Arnold W. “Buck” Ryan, Rosie Ledford, Paul Warren, Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Cousin Jake.

Also on the wall were baby pictures and photos of parties and picnics. Sidemen in ties. Family shots in front of tour buses. Bands playing next to lawn furniture. A letter from President Ronald Reagan to Monroe: “I am delighted to send my heartfelt congratulations as you celebrate your 75th birthday.” And this from a local paper: “We are sorry to report that Earl Scruggs is in the Baptist Hospital. … Earl is slated to be confined until sometime during October and would love to hear from friends.”

Tonight’s opening act succumbed to playing bluegrass versions of such oldies as “My Little Runaway.” In the middle of the set, one of the singers asked if anyone was ready to accept Jesus Christ as his lord and savior.

The stands were barely half full, and the reception was retirement-home polite clapping. When encouraged, the audience laughed at the corny jokes and did a little two-step when the mood struck. Just enough of an excuse for Ralph II to put on a rollicking mix of standards such as “Orange Blossom Special” and Monroe’s fiery instrumental “Raw Hide,” as well as new songs. The shadow of Ralph II’s father is still impossibly long.

“When I started doing a few shows without him, well, I realized what it was like without him,” he told the crowd. “So I went in a room in his bus one night and wrote this song after a show, one of the first few shows I played without him. So I hope you guys will enjoy it. It’s on my new album, as well. It’s called ‘Lord Help Me Find the Way.’ ”

By the end of the set, Ralph II had at least half the retirees out of their seats. After signing autographs, he found his way to a small, cold back room and a round of beers. He leaned against the door and talked until everyone else had left. Behind him, on the wall, someone had written “Ralph Stanley Rules.”

With everyone cleared out, Ralph II met up with two superfans, a middle-aged couple, at a gas station before heading home to Coeburn, Va. He hoped they had some beers left to share.

* * *

Under a clear blue morning sky, I traveled an hour east along ribbons of damp farmland to Morehead. Mounds of hay squatted in a field. Cows munched on grass. More cows stared into space. Barns collected rust. I saw more livestock than people.

And hidden among this beige canvas and these micro main streets, there were still spots — little mystery spots — where you could hear Monroe’s legacy. Tune in to the wrong station or ask the wrong store clerk, and you’d miss it. A local radio announcer rattled off a list of shows at various lodges, fire halls and community rooms I wouldn’t possibly have time to get to.

I was on my way to find Jesse Wells, an instructor and archivist with Morehead State University’s Kentucky Center for Traditional Music . He and other faculty operated out of a storefront in what could generously be called downtown — which really meant a folk-art museum, a boarded-up movie theater and a few restaurants. It is Wells’s job to find the hidden spaces and record the bands as part of his ever-expanding collection of field recordings, home tapes, digitized 78s and old-time sides that make up Kentucky’s music history. He calls each recording “little pieces of time.”

“There are lifetimes of research that needs to be done,” said Wells, 32. “Right now.”

I sat in an office chair on the second floor of the center and grew dumbstruck over all this recorded history. Every lost sound at the click of a mouse. I kept asking for more. And more.

And it was here where I had my revelation: Kentucky didn’t just have one Bill Monroe; it had thousands. “A lot of families knew that their relatives wouldn’t be recorded, so they took the time and energy to make sure that their music was captured,” Wells said. “They weren’t famous musicians. They played at home for themselves.”

“Some family members would sneak recorders into the house, secretly record their relatives,” Wells said. “Others made promises that they would do the songs justice, record the songs for their own sake.”

Once a week or more, someone comes in and asks to go through the archives. Sometimes it’s family members just wanting to hear their kin play that old favorite one more time. “People cry, people laugh,” Wells said. “Some people don’t care.”

Not lost among his Kentucky files are more than a few Monroe recordings. As I was leaving, Wells gave me a 1989 recording of a song Monroe had created on the fly before a show in town — an instrumental dedication called “Foggy Morning in Morehead.”

On the recording, at the end of a run through the tune backstage, a guy sputters to a friend: “Just saw history made. He just wrote another instrumental.”

“My goodness,” gushes the friend.

“Can we play it for you?” Monroe asks.

“Yes, sir,” the man says. “You can.”

“You know anything about music?” Monroe asks.

“A little bit,” the man says.

“You think you did,” Monroe says. “But I want to play this for you. Come over here.”

On the tape, I heard the sound of a door slam. Then suddenly, the room filled with the chiming strum of Monroe’s mandolin. After the driving, bluesy song was over, someone — maybe Monroe — let out a whoop.

Jason Cherkis is a former senior writer for Washington City Paper and is currently an investigative reporter with the Huffington Post’s D.C. bureau. He can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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