Thursday, April 12, 2007

Newsletter Articles: some of my Rosine back story

Here are the pair of articles I wrote early this year, published in the Northern Nevada Bluegrass Association newsletter.

In January (of 2006) a good friend, Ken Adams clipped out an advertisement from the Reno paper for the 1st annual Bill Monroe style mandolin camp. “You’re into Bill Monroe, right?” What an understatement! I phoned the International Bluegrass Music Museum immediately. “The class is full,” said Justin Holt who thought of and worked with the IBMM to start the camp. “But we’re working on another class for the following week.” Butch Waller was an instructor in the second camp. Butch played Bowers in 2005 with High Country and gave the mandolin workshop. I could tell he had studied Monroe by his playing and of course from what he said. At that workshop I played the intro to I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky and asked him about Monroe’s common use of the flattened third. He smiled and seemed a little surprised. I knew I was on the right track.

So on September 14, I flew to Owensboro, Kentucky, sharing the last leg with Smartsville, California resident Kip Burton, whom I met at the St. Louis Airport – mandolin cases are easy to spot! It is a perfect experience to travel to the birthplace of bluegrass, right there on the Ohio River (Big Mon was born about 30 miles to the southeast in Rosine.) Then add the opportunity to study his style with other like-minded pickers and the best mandolinists in this style, and well, I was elated. Besides Butch, the other instructors were Mike Compton, Roland White, David Long, and Skip Gorman



Most of us stayed at the same motel, which had wisely put all the campers in rooms above the designated jam areas. The caliber of mando playing was incredible. I was happy just to listen to obscure Monroe instrumentals spin through the jam. Tunes like Southern Flavor, Old Dangerfield, Tombstone Junction, and Dusty Miller were played with a familiarity as if they were Wildwood Flower. I joined in on a few and stayed up very late. I knew the camp was going to be great.

The next morning I went to the first class attended by all. We introduced ourselves one by one, and as I stood up, I was interrupted by a familiar voice exclaiming my name from the back of the room. Randy Wilson and I exchanged shocked glances and grins. We became close throughout the camp and departed as good friends before he moved away from Reno to Eugene, Oregon.

Roland White, the legendary bluegrass mandolinist of The Kentucky Colonels and former Bluegrass Boy.

I’ve wondered about the development the mandolin ‘chop.’ On the flight to Kentucky I listened carefully to Monroe’s recordings and noticed that it didn’t appear until early in the 1950’s. This was a surprise because it is well after what many regard as the definitive Bluegrass Boys that included Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Somewhere into the camp, Compton and Long addressed this very topic. They said we could do so much more with mandolin rhythm. They proved it by playing a duet piece from their new album Stomp. Mike went onto explain that when Lester and Earl left, Bill had a lot of musicians coming through the band. Compton guessed that Bill developed the chop to keep the ever-changing lineup on his timing.


Instructors Skip Gorman and Mike Compton treated us to a wonderful fiddle tune jam.

The shuffle Monroe speaks of on the album Live Recordings 1956-69 has always eluded me. David Long and I stayed up until 5 a.m. listening to lots of mandolin music, playing and talking. I mentioned how I couldn’t hear it. So he showed me. The next morning he showed everyone by playing rhythm with the shuffle in it. It’s like a train beat that you have to hear to understand. It was amazing to see a tune come to life as students were asked to try it with a tune they knew. I played Gold Rush. I was so happy to finally get it! Bluegrass music is rooted in old time dance music and sometimes we get going so fast we forget this. Monroe never forgot and would often shuffle with his mandolin, recalling the way his Uncle Pen could really get the folks dancing.


Compton's talented right hand.

During the camp, I became friends with a mandolin builder from Australia named Paul Duff. In the after-hours jams, there were never enough singers and too many mandolins. I rarely played mandolin outside of the classes and instead sang Monroe songs with a borrowed guitar. I delighted in break after break of Monroe-inspired picking from the circle. On the last day, Paul was offering free inspections of our instruments. As he checked out mine, I asked him about my singing. By then he’d heard plenty and he himself is a singer. I’ve become terribly self-conscious about it was considering giving it up. When I said this, he flashed me a grave look and said with a thick Australian accent, “NEHVAH stop singing!” He repeated it a few times and handed me back my mandolin with a smile.

Paul Duff, the gifted Lloyd Blake, London resident and friend Sid Griffith and instructor David Long (seated).

By the last day, I had more than I could take in. I wandered around the various classes and found myself sitting in the final beginner course of the camp. Butch was answering a question that must’ve been “how do I get better.” He said “you have to get it in your body. You need to feel the music. It should move you.” That really rang true for me. While learning mandolin during the summers of 2003-4, I listened to a lot of Bill Monroe while driving around rural Nevada. All the while I ‘chopped’ on my pant leg with a pick. I had inadvertently learned the lesson and it was nice to be reminded of this important aspect.

Let me preface my next write up by saying it was downright spiritual to play Stoney Lonesome while standing in front of Bill’s childhood home on Jerusalem Ridge.


The camp sped by and finished late in afternoon on Sunday, September 17. I hoped to go to Rosine during the camp, but by the last day I hadn’t found a ride and resigned myself to a quiet evening before my flight out Monday. Randy Wilson offered a ride back to the motel. In the car I said I’d have to go to Rosine next year. He asked where it was and in an instant we had a plan. We picked up our friend Kip and left immediately. It was a nice drive through rolling hills covered with Kentucky blue grass. We listened to CDs by our instructors (Mike Compton and David Long’s Stomp and two by Skip Gorman). We made a few wrong turns, but following road signs, we eventually arrived to a locked gate. We’d missed it by over and hour!

We sat quietly in the car as an old Chevy pickup approached. We said hello. They were aware of our mandolin camp and let us in. Our excitement was brimming as we drove up the gravel road and crept through the densely vegetated property. The film High Lonesome follows Bill as he returns to the old home in 1989. We were on the same road. Mr. Monroe says to John Hartford, “I’ll never forget the old days, John,” visibly upset by the dilapidated condition.

So to my astonishment, the house is completely restored! We parked near a sign that read and pointed to “Jerusalem Ridge,” and put away our cool. Three grown men lunged for their mandolins to walk around the property. As we snapped photos, a friendly looking man approached us. “Those mandolins sure sound good!” He introduced himself as the caretaker and offered the tour since we’d come ‘all this way.’

Picking on the porch thinking of Mr. Monroe.

I was still digesting what Butch Waller showed me about playing Stoney Lonesome, several hours earlier during lunch. I just couldn’t play the nuance. I gave it a go and he said, “yeah, you could play it that way.” Then with a smile and lowered head he said, “But that’s not how Bill played it.” So the tune was stuck in my mind and hands as we stood on Mr. Monroe’s porch. Campbell Mercer, the caretaker,asked which tune we were noodling on. I wasn’t expecting his enthusiastic response, “Oh, man, that is a great one!”

He gave us a great tour, complete with details about the sale and lawsuits and battle to regain the Monroe property. He knew the deep stories behind the items in the home, now a museum to Bill and Charlie and Uncle Pen. He showed us the room where Mr. Monroe was born. He showed us where Uncle Pen and Bill would play in the early days in front of the hearth. He told us about the roses, blooming outside, and how Bill often reflected on his mother’s meticulous care of the plant. Malissa Monroe (Vandiver) would wear a rose in her hair every day they were in bloom. The same roses, still growing outside, inspired much of Mr. Monroe’s songwriting imagery. It was much to take in and our emotions were close to the surface from our total immersion in Monroe-style mandolin.

Former Reno (and southern Oregon coast!) resident and great guy Randy Wilson.

After the tour it was dusk and he invited us to his home for dinner. The caretaker’s house is a few hundred yards west of the home place. Campbell’s home is also the headquarters of the Monroe Brothers Foundation as well as the Jerusalem Ridge Bluegrass Festival. Both the festival and the Foundation are organized and run by Campbell and his wife Julie.

Campbell was direct after dinner. “Why don’t we pick some?” He asked Julie to join him on guitar and they sang us two original songs and an original instrumental. Then we got to jamming. Campbell is an exceptionally talented Monroe-style mandolinist. He and Randy blazed through Jerusalem Ridge. Kip impressed us all with a great version of Boston Boy. Then we all played Big Mon, and to my right, unexpectedly, Campbell began playing harmony to my second break. I kept it straight and listened to this new sound. I tried not to mess up. When we finished he said that I played it ‘real close’ and grasped my shoulder with his frettin’ hand. He was as excited as us.

Before we played My Sweet Blue Eyed Darlin’ I said how much I liked Wayne Lewis. He sang lead on the recording from ’76 and was Monroe’s lead singer and guitar player from 1976 to 1986. Campbell said, “yeah, that’s my buddy! He plays in my band.” My eyebrows raised high and my eyes widened. Haggard and tired, my voice broke through the first chorus. Smiles and nods meant it was all right.

Campbell Mercer, the kindest man I've met in bluegrass.

We had been there for hours and it was time for goodbye. He gave us a CD by his band The Cumberland Highlanders, and we parted as friends. Our footsteps crunched in the gravel road back to the car. It was mighty dark to travel. We drove down the hill to the gate but this time we were locked in. Randy and Kip left to fetch someone and I asked to stay behind. The darkness was penetrating. But slowly, I began to make sense of it. My ears seemed to sharpen and focus. I could hear a small stream running nearby and multitudes of insects. There were a few lonesome animal calls. I wondered how much more I might hear if I were nearly blind as Bill was in his childhood. What if I were on my way back from a square dance playing backup for Uncle Pen Vandiver? Were these the ‘ancient tones’ Mr. Monroe often spoke of?


There in the darkness near the end of my trip, I knew my journey had only begun.

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