On the Bus with Bill Monroe

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1/27/22 Mississippi Chris Sharp
Book Review

Book: On The Bus with Bill Monroe
Author: Mark Hembree
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Release Date: April 2022

 

 

This book is available in April 2022 from The University of Illinois Press (https://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/?id=37mpc3xr9780252044427).

In On the Bus with Bill Monroe: My Five Year Ride with the Father of Blue Grass, Mark Hembree takes us with him on a vivid adventure, back to 1979, when he started as the bassist for Bill Monroe. He gives us the glory of the music, the chiding and then the eventual camaraderie of the other Bluegrass boys, some of the peculiarities of Monroe’s quirky nature, the hardship of trying to support oneself and a wife on the meager pay of a band member, and even the smells and sounds of the bus. It is not all pretty, but it is history. It has moments of great victory, shrouded with moments of pain.

I was fortunate to witness some of it, and some of it was even On the Bus: from Hembree’s first forays with the band to the bus’s pungent and at times toxic atmosphere. Though Hembree writes about the difficulties, it is not the difficulties that one takes away from the book, but rather the nature of playing music with a musical dynamo who expected so much to be understood without explanation, the humorous difficulties of a Wisconsinite’s struggle with Southern accents and colloquialisms, and the vagaries of working with a musical genius.

There is no greater Bluegrass icon than Bill Monroe, who was not the easiest person to know. Getting to know Monroe and earn his respect was difficult for Hembree as it has been for many others. The band did not always help, as their treatment of the rookie was at times brutal. Eventually, that passed.

There are several quotable moments in the book, but my favorite comes from the last three paragraphs of the forward. It is a rather long quote, but it sums up Hembree’s admirable objectives as he documented an essential part of Monroe’s history and treats a musical giant’s humanity with an understanding gentleness.

One more thing: other books about Monroe have dallied more in his personal life, including his love life. Some of those details illuminate his personality, and his character, no doubt, and in certain instances are unavoidable. But, I, who only briefly visited his home a time or two, knew very little of that.

I don’t think leaving those parts out makes my account deficient. Even if I had been in the know, I don’t think I’d write about it. It doesn’t matter any more than Ty Cobb’s evil nature or Babe Ruth’s famous excesses — interesting aspects, perhaps, but not the reason Cobb, Ruth, and Bill Monroe are legends.

 It’s because they had game.

And Bill Monroe certainly had game.

I don’t recall ever having a preface or foreword to a book sell me, but I was sure sold on this one. The way Hembree sets his limits are limits he carefully observes throughout the book. We all know stories about our musical heroes, particularly in the close-knit community that is Bluegrass. While we may know the stories, we don’t usually know all the details or motivations surrounding them, nor is someone’s recollection a record of facts. Sometimes recollections are from imperfect observations and have roots in our own biases. Hembree addresses this in the book by having written it in a format that separates recollections from archival anecdotes and observations based on notes he made at the time events occurred. His recollections are his own. We all own our recollections. Others may tell us that we have the facts wrong, but they cannot deny our recollections.

The things we learn about Bill Monroe’s musical history are not new. There are no earthshaking revelations or additions to an already thorough historical record. What does exist in this book are revelations about spending thousands of hours in close contact with Monroe and his band, the tough times experienced by a full-time traveling member of The Bluegrass Boys, the marvelous travels and places being a Bluegrass Boy allowed Hembree to see, the glorious moments of live music on stage while witnessing the power and creative capabilities of Monroe as a member of his band, and Monroe’s uncanny omnipresence in managing to catch Hembree every time he tried to enjoy a beer. Monroe never did like that “old slop,” unlike a young man from Wisconsin who thought beer was as natural a part of life as we do our Southern favorite, sweet tea. All Hembree’s revelations give us a better understanding of The Father of Bluegrass’s life and music.

Everyone has to pay their dues, going through whatever unpleasantness veterans heap on newcomers. At times, I witnessed the harshness of the band on the rookie. Hembree covers this in his book, but I think he downplays it a bit, or his memories have mellowed as sometimes do ours over time. He took it well, even though he may not have liked it, which is the point. Ultimately, he leaves us with good impressions and his fondness of Kenny Baker, Wayne Lewis, Butch Robins, and Blake Williams, his bandmates in The Bluegrass Boys, all of whom became his friends. He even mentions times that the bandmates gave him valuable advice and assistance. As for dealing with Monroe as a newcomer to the band, Hembree leaves us understanding that he had to work out his methods of dealing with the boss.

On the Bus with Bill Monroe: My Five Year Ride with the Father of Blue Grass is readable and enjoyable. One completely unfamiliar with Bluegrass music can also enjoy it, though the insider certainly gets an extra bump. I particularly appreciate the stories about Birch and Charlie Monroe (Bill’s brothers), including a brief, funny encounter between Bill and Charlie at Charlie’s home. Brothers will be brothers. Sometimes our recollections of events early in our lives do not drift towards pleasant, as is often the case with family squabbles.

Many of the reminiscences Hembree has about Bean Blossom are also mine. I’d give just about anything to have a Birch Monroe concession stand hot dog and sit with Hembree on Monroe’s bus, again. I can still smell it all—the bus, the hot dog, and the faint whiffs of the old slop wafting its way through the trees in that heavenly piece of Indiana’s beautiful Brown County.

I look for it to be a hit in the bluegrass world and among musicologists, as it adds to what we know about Bill Monroe from a human relationship perspective. It has nuts and bolts but also some slipped wrenches and busted knuckles. Being a Bluegrass Boy wasn’t easy, but Hembree secured his place in history, all from a mysterious, brief audition. He got the job, but I’d venture to say that at times he’d say the job had him.

I salute Hembree and this book about life on the bus. In a very articulate and pleasant manner, Hembree manages to take us along for the ride with him through an important period of Bluegrass history.

I am thankful for that.

Mississippi Chris Sharp
1/27/22

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