A California Boy’s pilgrimage to Rosine, Kentucky

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(Editor’s Note–One of George’s best columns from a few years ago.)

(Thanks to J.D. Rhynes for reminding us a few days ago on the message board that it has been exactly 17 years since Bill Monroe passed on to that Great Opry in the Sky. In the spring of 1998, not quite two years after Mr. Monroe left us, my wife and I made pilgrimage to Rosine, Ky., his birthplace. We were there on a warm Friday in May and that night (also warm) I joined in the weekly jam session with dozens of locals and visitors outside the performance barn in the tiny town. Playing bluegrass under a nearly full moon just a stone’s throw from the Monroe family graves and practically in the shadow of Jerusalem Ridge was something I will never forget. A few months later I wrote the following story for the August, 1998, issue of the Bluegrass Breakdown. The original story was quite long; this is the Readers Digest condensed version. GM)

It was a gray, overcast May day, warm and humid, when we reached the cemetery in Rosine, Ky, Bill Monroe’s home town. A tornado had ripped part of the roof off a school about 40 miles away a few days before and the TV news was full of warnings and maps with bright green splotches showing where the weather radar was picking up some serious storms.

This California boy was a little nervous and wishing for a nice familiar earthquake instead of all those killer winds. There were entirely too many double-wide trailers around to suit me.

Rural Kentucky has not picked up on the California trend of low, flat grave markers that one can just run the mower over. Rosine’s cemetery has real gravestones, and they do say, as in the old song, “Gone, but not forgotten” and “We’ll meet again someday.”

It’s not hard to pick out Bill Monroe’s grave: it’s marked by a tall obelisk of pale, cream-colored stone surrounded by a low wall, and a large flat stone with a touching biographical inscription written by Monroe’s son James. A year and a half after the death of the father of bluegrass there were fresh flowers on the grave, obviously left by other pilgrims. A photograph of Monroe is etched into the base of the obelisk, and there is a granite bench at the foot of the grave where one can sit and contemplate.

I cradled my mandolin and looked across the green grass of the cemetery to the tree line beyond, thinking how curious it was that this man from an obscure village in the Kentucky hills could have so touched the life of a half-Portuguese kid from California.

My father’s father was from rural southwestern Missouri and I am told for a time he actually lived in the woods and supported himself by hunting squirrels. His father came there from Kentucky after the Civil War. But they, as far as anyone knows, were not musical. My maternal grandfather, who died before I was born, played the Portuguese [begin italics] guitarra, [end italics] and my mother played the popular songs of her day by ear on the piano.

But as a child when I first heard snippets of bluegrass on the radio, “taking us up to news time” as the disc jockey would say, I was hooked on that particular sound from then on.

Sitting by the grave I thought of seeing Bill Monroe for the first time in 1958 or ’59 at the Dream Bowl near Vallejo, and the concerts in Berkeley and San Francisco we had attended over the years. And the Strawberry Bluegrass Festival (before it became a “music festival”) when he waved from the window of his bus as it passed our jam.

A mental image came of Monroe on the TV portion of the Grand Ole Opry, still buck dancing in his 80s, seemingly indestructible. Then Monroe vanished from the televised Opry and the word came that he had suffered a stroke. And finally in September of 1996 my computer at the San Francisco Examiner spit out the news that he had died, just a few weeks shy of his 85th birthday.

I walked up near the headstone, struck a D-minor chord on the mandolin and played “Lonesome Midnight Waltz” for this amazing person, just as slow and sad as I could make it. And I found my eyes welling up with tears for a man I had only spoken two twice in my life, maybe four sentences, total, but whose music had shaped my life and the lives of so many others across the world.

Later we had excellent pulled pork barbecue sandwiches for dinner at the Rosine store and some amazing local-made buttermilk pie.

Soon people started arriving for the weekly jam. I was suffering from travel fatigue and laryngitis, so my singing was curtailed. I did get to play a set on stage in the barn with a borrowed banjo. The crowd was very pleased that a California couple had come all the way to Rosine and seemed impressed that a prune picker could play Scruggs-style banjo. Most of my rather unexceptional banjo breaks got applause.

I hated to leave Rosine but I was still jet-lagged from flying with no sleep after working a night shift, and my throat was sore. So about midnight we shook a few hands and pulled our little Geo Metro out of the parking lot. As we slowly drove into the darkness the sounds of fiddles and banjos faded into the distance, replaced by the chirp of crickets in the warm summer night.

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