Bluegrass, Banjos and Barbecue

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We’ve had a few posts lately about Rosine, KY. It brought back memories of a visit my wife Barbara and I made there shortly after Bill Monroe’s death. I poked around in the archives and found this story I had written for the August, 1998, Breakdown. The headline was: “Bluegrass, Banjos and Barbecue…A California Boy’s pilgrimage to Rosine, Kentucky, Bill Monroe’s home town.” — 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 these killer winds. There were entirely too many doublewide trailers around to suit me.

Rural Kentucky hasn’t 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 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 should have so touched the life of a half-Portuguese kid from California.

My father’s father was from rural southwest 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 were not, as far as anyone knows, musical.

My maternal grandfather, who died before I was born, played the Portuguese guitarra, and my mother played popular songs of the day 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 1959 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 he 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 “Moonlight Waltz,” for this amazing person, as slow and sad as I could make it. And I found my eyes welling up with tears for a man I spoke to only twice, maybe four sentences total, but whose music had shaped my life and the lives of so many others around the world.

When my wife Barbara and I decided on a Midwest trip to visit relatives in Illinois this spring, we found Southwest Airlines was having a $198 round-trip sale. We decided to fly to Nashville, do the tourist stuff, then drive to Illinois and back to Tennessee for the trip home. Via computer I found a phone number to call for information about Rosine, and the man who answered was Dwight Westerfield, a Rosine native who now lives in nearby Beaver Dam and is an Ohio County commissioner.

Westerfield is a round-faced slow-talking Kentuckian with a deep, resonant voice. “Everybody calls me Frog,” he drawled as he extended his hand, and if you’ve ever listened to the basso profundo calls of bullfrogs at night, you can hear where the nickname came from.

Westerfield is a board member of the Rosine Association, the local group that is working on plans for a visitors center and festival performance area for the town. The association also runs the Rosine Barn Jamboree, a weekly open-mike jam session in a converted feed store that was the reason Barbara and I timed our visit for a Friday.

We met Westerfield and his wife Pauline at the one motel in Beaver Dam, conveniently located at the junction of former State Highway 62, recently renamed Blue Moon of Kentucky Highway. About six miles out of Beaver Dam and about three miles from Rosine, Westerfield pulled over to point out, across the railroad tracks near mile marker 17, the gated road that leads up to Jerusalem Ridge and the old Monroe home place.

He apologized for not taking us up there, but said heavy rains had left the steep, muddy roads impassable for our cars.

After our visit to Monroe’s grave, and the graves of brothers Birch and Charlie, their parents and Uncle Pen Vandiver, we checked out the little church where the funeral had been held, then drove the short distance to the center of “town” (Rosine is unincorporated and estimated to have about 250 residents; it is very small) to visit the Rosine General Merchandise.

This is a combination general store and small restaurant run by Pal and Ramona Goff, and is noted for its “Pal Burger,” a substantial half-pounder. [Update: the Goff’s lost possession of the store shortly after this in some sort of political fight.]

As supper time was upon us, we decided to eat, but Barbara and I opted for the barbecue sandwich, which seemed more Southern somehow. It proved to be shredded pork in a delicious sauce on a hamburger-type bun. Trying to stick with the Southern theme, I accompanied the barbecue with a Royal Crown Cola.

But the hit of the meal was buttermilk pie, homemade by Rosine native Linda Smith. It was a sort of custard pie with a buttermilk tang and an exquisite crust. We ate every bite then scraped the little bits off the plate.

The Friday night jam we had come to see originated in the store, moved to the porch and then to the “barn” next door as the number of pickers grew. The Rosine Association has scrounged church pews and chairs, built a small stage and installed a sound system and a heater. There were about 30 musicians around that night, but Westerfield said it was a small turnout because of the Memorial Day weekend.

[I’m going to skip some digressions in the original piece and cut to the jamming. — GM]

The Rosine folks say that in cold weather months playing on stage in the warmth of the barn is much desired by the local pickers, but in the summer months most prefer to jam outside and the organizers have to cruise the parking lot to recruit folks to come inside and play for the crowd.

The picking ranged from extremely good to average, but I have to say that virtually everyone back there sings very well. I don’t know what it is, but each group I picked with had exceptional vocals. I was suffering from laryngitis that week and could barely talk. Many times I wanted to add a baritone part to a beautiful duet, but couldn’t get any sound out of my throat.

Inside the barn we met Donald and Marian Bryant of Hawesville, Ky. Marian Bryant is active in planning the memorial and visitors center at Everett Park in Rosine, where Monroe put on a bluegrass festival in 1973 during the town’s centennial celebration.

“We went down to Nashville to see Mr. Monroe when he was still alive,” she said, “to talk to him about the

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