Next year is a very important year for Bluegrass fans everywhere because it marks the centenary year of the man who, more than any other, gave us the art form we now call Bluegrass. I don’t know about you but I plan to party the whole year! I figure we all have one last opportunity to enjoy some great music and good fellowship before the 2012 Mayan apocalypse hits us and we all fall in to the doomsday abyss at the end of time.
Bill Monroe was born in Rosine, Kentucky on September 13, 1911. The youngest of eight children in a musical family, he went on to synthesize diverse musical streams into a river of unique music which flows to this day. We owe it to Bill to celbrate his birthday in style and it’s not too early to start our preparations. What should we do? What special activities befit such an icon?
Probably our best tribute to Bill Monroe is that we continue to support his music. We listen to his old recordings, we write new music in the characteristic style that he fathered, and we get together to play and sing his music. We should do a lot of that in 2011. A few years ago there was a big celebration for the 250th birthday of an even more honored (by the general public, that is) musician, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I remember listening to a marathon live broadcast on NPR from Salzburg during that year of 2006. Musicians had gathered to play every single composition that Mozart had ever published. It was great.
We should do that for Bill. I think the Mozart musicians went consecutively right down the list of Kochel catalog numbers, from K1 to K 626, progressing from the artist’s earliest work to his most mature pieces like the Requiem mass. Like Mozart, Monroe wrote and recorded a large body of work and he must have produced them in a certain order that could be determined. But it gets complicated. Monroe also performed quite a few pieces that are not his own compositions but are very much associated with him and that are even considered “essential” to Bluegrass. And Bill never actually recorded some of his best tunes, like Road to Columbus, for example.
In Bill’s centennary year, we should play ALL the great tunes connected to the founder of Bluegrass. For 2011, I plan to make a list of all his tunes I can find and just go through them in alphabetical order. Something like “A Beautiful Life” through “You Won’t Be Satisfied That Way”. Maybe I can attend the CBA’s Bakersfield Jam weekend in January and do a trial run Monroe marathon. Hopefully I can find some hard core Monroe fans who can stay awake long enough and who know every tune on the list. That way the music can be continuous and I can just listen to the tunes I don’t know yet.
And I hope that by next year I can finally figure out how to do all those bluesy downstrokes, a la Monroe, on my mandolin. I know it’s not likely but I’m going to try anyway. I started playing mandolin about six years ago and my favorite learning tool from the beginning was Roland White’s excellent Approach to Bluegrass Mandolin. I got Roland to autograph my copy at Grass Valley last year. Early on in my first year of diligent study, I remember how crestfallen I was when I made it to page 38 and Roland said I had to use all downstokes, except where indicated. Boy did that ever mess me up! I just couldn’t get the knack, after getting used to the back and forth flatpicking for the fiddle tunes at the beginning of the book. Yes, Buegrass Stomp just stopped me in my tracks and I gave up on the Monroe thing for a while. I moved on to other tunes where I could continue doing what I was comfortable with. But I’m hoping Butch Waller can straighten me out at music camp this summer!
What else should we do to honor Bill Monroe in his centennial? Come on you people, this is important! Some of you may have traveled to some place in the vast Pacific Ocean just so you could be among the first to welcome the third millenium. If you haven’t yet made pilgrimages to Rosine or Nashville, now might be the time.
I’m sure festivals will perform Mr. Monroe’s classics even more than usual. They never tire. And we should all go to as many Bluegrass festivals and campouts as possible. Grass Valley is a must for all of you (but then again it’s a must every year in my opinion). Let’s play baseball, like Bill and his All Stars did! Have a Bill Monroe day at the ballpark! Let’s pull this thing together! Next year will be a blast. What will YOU be doing on September 13, 2011?