I first met Bill Monroe in May of 1963. At that time, he told me (and I still have the interview on tape): “When it comes to music, I always considered myself as an inventor, sort of like Henry Ford. I always wanted to play different from anybody else . . . and it turned out to be bluegrass music”. Now, how many people can you think of could make a statement like that?
Will bluegrass survive? In some form, sure. But it may come to resemble a stuffed doll. Traditional jazz is still played, in some areas, by preservationists, for example in New Orleans. Jazz began as dance music. Now it is like bluegrass, a showpiece intended for listening rather than dancing to. The question we need to think about is, is bluegrass relevant to our modern lifestyle? One interesting aspect is that the music jumped from being the music of rural, small town people, to that of youngsters in college (like me in the late 50s – early 60s). Bluegrass is not “folk music”. Instead it was intentionally crafted as a complex derivation of earlier music, intended to be performed by professional virtuosi. It managed to jump major cultural barriers. In the 1950s, it was part of mainstream country music.
I tend to think of the music as starting like a mountain stream, cascading down from the hills, being joined along the way by other streams and tributaries, becoming a mighty river. Then, upon reaching the flatlands of a delta, spreads out, becomes slow and muddy, and breaks up into dozens of rivulets on reaching the sea. The original water (music) is still in there, but blended and diluted with lots of other sources. Can the life, the essence, of the music remain vital? I can only answer that for me, it remains one of the most beautiful and inspiring forms of music there is. I intend to keep performing it until I can’t any longer. The hopeful thing is that, as I try to share my awe of the music with younger generations, there are some that seem to “get it” and understand.
Here’s a little example of Monroe performing an old traditional “Play Party” song often used in country dances. It’s Shady Grove, played at break-neck speed by Bill and the Blue Grass Boys (Monroe: vocal and mandolin; Kenny Baker: fiddle, Del McCourey: vocal and guitar; Bessie Lee Mauldin, bass; and Bill Keith, banjo.) Recorded in Los Angeles in May, 1963.