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Friday, March 6, 2009

The Music Of The South

My special guest today is Steve Cantrell, a guy who's near and dear to my heart. Steve's a great musician. His obsession with music began in high school where he played the violen in his high school strings group. He decided he liked the drums better so for four years he was lead drummer in the high school band. After he graduated from high school he switched from drums to the guitar, but he found what he was looking for when he found the mandolin.

Steve's going to talk about the music of the south so I'll be quiet and let him get started. Oh, why is he so near and dear to my heart? He's my son. Thanks for helping Mom out, Steve.

There’s really no way to properly examine southern culture without discussing the music that is such an integral part of it, and there’s really no other place to start such an investigation than with the man who has properly come to define the music of the south: Bill Monroe.

Bill Monroe was born in Rosine, Kentucky in 1911 and spent the majority of his youth in relative isolation, with it generally being understood that he might be retarded due to his vision, which made him quiet and reflective. In the crude terminology of the day, Monroe was “hug-eyed”, meaning one eye seemed to drift away. Perhaps as a result of his poor vision—if you buy that one disabled sense can lead to an augmentation of another—Monroe began to have a keen ear for music. As a youth he became close with his uncle Pendleton Vandiver, a local fiddler of some renown, who began to take Monroe along with him when he played for square dances, this being a major form of entertainment for those with no radio or television to offer them diversion. As well, Monroe had begun to associate with an African-American blues musician named Arnold Schultz who has a near legendary reputation as a bluesman of consummate skill, sadly never recorded.

Eventually, Monroe and his brothers found their way into the city for work, where they began to play their rollicking, old-time fiddle music for groups of fellow southerners who were also transplants and eager to hear the sounds from their homes. Monroe eventually had corrective surgery to straighten his eyes, perhaps adding enough confidence and marketability to make him appealing to the regional “barn dance” shows. Bill and his brother Charlie became professional musicians.

The Monroe Brothers were a household name in the south in the 30’s, traveling North and South from their base of operations in Greenville, SC and appearing on short radio segments. Monroe developed a high, keening tenor (perhaps mimicking the field hollers used to communicate across the valleys of Kentucky) and accompanied with his brother’s soothing baritone and guitar made a pleasing combination. The essential element was added by Monroe’s mandolin.

In stark contrast to the size of the instrument, Monroe played with ferocity and swagger, developing his own style of hard downstrokes combined with a shuffling right hand reminiscent of the country shuffle of his Uncle Penn’s bow, and bluesy, fast-as-lightning slides which were certainly a result of his exposure to Arnold Schultz. It changed the role of the mandolin from a parlor or orchestral instrument into a front-and-center lead.

By the 40’s, Bill had left his brother and formed his own band, called the Bluegrass Boys as an homage to this native state of Kentucky. To his lineup he added Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on guitar and banjo respectively, and the now-traditional bluegrass band began to take shape. Characterized by a driving beat, the roll of a banjo and the jazz-like, long, improvised solos, Monroe had created a distinctly American sound, and one that would shape the course of modern music.

It is Monroe’s fiery mandolin that can be heard in Chuck Berry’s guitar work for “Johnny B. Goode”, and of course it is a known fact that Elvis Presley was hugely influenced by the work of Monroe, picking the Monroe-penned “Blue Moon of Kentucky” as the first song he recorded for the legendary Sun Records. While Monroe himself became marginalized within popular music, his musical footprint was so large that most didn’t even realize they were stepping in it.

For years he toiled in near-obscurity until the folk boom of the 60’s, when Monroe was once again brought center stage and acknowledged as the father of an entire genre of music, most notably through the efforts of folklorist Ralph Rinzler. The advent of music festivals exposed Monroe to another generation of wide-eyed fans, who surely had to comb their hair back down after hearing Monroe sing so loudly that the mics would distort, or hear the long, scorching instrumentals like “Rawhide” or “Jerusalem Ridge”.

Monroe is one of the few people to have been inducted into both the Country and Rock Music Halls of Fame, and remains force today despite his death in 1996 . Any new Bluegrass sound is placed against the Monroe measuring stick to discover whether it is worthy of listening.

1 comment:

liana laverentz said...

I love bluegrass music. Play on!