As origin stories go, bluegrass music should be a pretty simple one*. There was a guy called Bill Monroe, he had a band called the Bluegrass Boys, and his music – a groundbreaking synthesis of old-time country music, gospel and blues – was so great that a whole host of people started copying it. You can trace his influences back to Appalachia, or even further to Scottish balladry if you like, but really, without Bill that grass would have stayed as green as Kermit’s ass.
Last week I drove to Rosine, Kentucky, on a pilgrimage to see the place where Monroe grew up. His upbringing had a huge effect on his music: his position as the youngest in his family meant he was often overlooked and ignored, which fostered both his creativity and his ambition, and the early death of his parents left him in the care of his fiddle-playing Uncle Pen. So it’s a bit of a Cinderella story, with some Spiderman thrown in.
I’m not sure exactly what I expected from Rosine, but I got a lot more than I bargained for. It began when I arrived at the Monroe homeplace, and the first person I met was Jarrett Watts, whose father Howard – aka Cedric Rainwater – was bass player in Monroe’s “classic band”. Jarrett told me he’d been given six months to live by his doctors, and visiting Rosine was number one on his bucket list.
As we walked into Monroe’s bedroom, Jarrett stopped in front of the mantelpiece, where a framed black and white picture showed Monroe posing on the steps of an aircraft. He reached for his wallet, and pulled out the original photograph – a wider angle that showed the rest of the band, including his father, standing behind Monroe on the stairs. They’d been heading for a gig in Roanoke, Jarrett told me, out of Nashville, where he grew up. Jarrett’s schoolfriends were the offspring of country stars; James Monroe, Bill’s son, was his swimming buddy.
Was this the strangest thing to happen to me in Rosine? It depends where you rank the scene by Bill Monroe’s graveside, where I joined a church group being shown around by Ohio County’s Judge Executive. You certainly don’t find the chief administrator of an English county council walking around a cemetery with a guitar, singing to local tour groups. And then there was the discovery of Tom Ewing on the porch of Uncle Pen’s cabin. Here at Bill Monroe’s teenage home sat a man who had been one of his Bluegrass Boys for a decade. He had his guitar. We played Jerusalem Ridge together. I started to wonder if Monroe was sitting up in the clouds, planning out my day for me.
He sure was. That evening, an open air gig was taking place in the park; as I sat on the grass to listen, someone who had seen me picking at the Monroe homeplace earlier in the day told the band, Kings Highway, that there was an English woman in the audience, and that she played fiddle. I should point out that they had a fantastic fiddle player, Isaac, who was absolutely killing it on stage despite being barely 12 years old. And yet, before I knew it I’d been invited up to the bandstand to play with them, and we were still going long after most of the audience left for bed.
As I drove to my motel that night, a big old full moon shone down from the Kentucky sky. I think Bill was proud of me.
*It’s not. Musicians, fans and academics have been debating the precise moment that bluegrass began since the 1960s, like those medieval scholastics who argued over how many angels you could fit on the head of a pin.