october 2008

A Film by Steve Gebhardt
MVD Visual
Run Time: 90 minutes

Originally released in 1993, Steve Gebhardt's Bill Monroe: The Father of Bluegrass remains the definitive film document of this American innovator's life and career. A fascinating 90-minute journey, the story progresses in mostly chronological order (one detour being an amusing segment on the subject's preferences in mandolins and his dispute with the Gibson company over a botched renovation of his instrument. An infuriated Monroe scratched the company trademark off the head stock and scraped the finish off the body), making ample use of vintage photos, rare film footage, and informative reflections by friends and former Bluegrass Boys band members. The talking heads serve two purposes: artists who were friends with Monroe provide the historical perspective on his achievements-Marty Stuart, Ricky Skaggs (who provides a succinct but breathtaking illustration of how the Monroe Brothers' harmony style filtered into country, early rock 'n' roll-via the Everly Brothers-and across the pond to mark the harmonies of Paul McCartney and John Lennon), Emmylou Harris, Peter Rowan (with a spot-on, impressively succinct explanation of how in Monroe's style of bluegrass he found the freedom and expressiveness he, David Grisman and Jerry Garcia had been seeking in their progressive experiments in Old and In the Way) and Roy Acuff (in one of his last interviews) speak eloquently to the topic of why Monroe ranks in the top tier of the American music pantheon; various band members offer vivid tales and colorful reflections on working with Monroe at various stages of his career, with the great bass player Chubby Wise pretty much stealing the show with garrulous recountings of his time with Monroe as part of the acknowledged greatest bluegrass band ever, along with Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt, which also is an occasion for a snippet of priceless footage showing Monroe and Flatt, after years of enmity, reunited on stage, playing beautifully and shaking hands with each other. John Hartford is Monroe's chief interlocutor throughout, and temperamentally a perfect fit, guiding Monroe through his life with a casual grace Monroe responds to with warmth, wit and thoughtful introspection, especially early on in a lengthy look at the foremost influence on his personal values and musical sensibility, his Uncle Pen Vandiver. A lot of the great Monroe music is not only heard but also performed in clips ranging from the '40s to the early '90s, featuring plenty of Monroe mandolin virtuosity on jaw dropping display. As good as everything else is here, a few moments jump out for the humanity and character Monroe reveals without calculation: his lively buckdancing with Emmylou Harris at the Grand Ole Opry (which reminds us, as the documentary does, that before he was a celebrated musician he had a budding career as a dancer); how memories of his childhood in Rosine, Kentucky, nearly choke him up ("those were good days in Rosine," he says softly as photos of his childhood fill the screen); tales of his incredible physical strength (he once carried all the members of his band, more than 900 pounds, on his back and shoulders); and what Hartford calls "your philosophy of hard work to keep you healthy," prompting Monroe to expound on his unquenchable need to engage in rigorous physical activity around his farm and how that carried over into his approach to music; and his affection for and commitment to taking care of the animals on his farm, as he is shown doing while in voiceover he speaks enthusiastically about enjoying tending to their needs "because then you know you've done something good." Pretty much the only subject missing here is religion and spirituality, but one could suggest that it is indeed present, subtly, all over Monroe's music, and one might be right. Bill Monroe's art and style continue to exert a profound influence on bluegrass musicians, from the youngest to the oldest generations. Why that is so is answered in this intelligently conceived, admirably executed, invaluable video portrait.—David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024