It’s been said that the father of bluegrass didn’t just attract fans – Bill Monroe made disciples.
People have named their kids after him; mandolin players made him bless their instruments; families planned vacations to attend his annual gatherings at Bean Blossom.
“He’s a big role model for me – musically,” says John Reischman, a mandolin virtuoso himself.
“His personal life – not so much.”
Beginning with his Blue Grass Boys in the ’40s, Monroe defined a hard-edged style of country that emphasized instrumental virtuosity, close vocal harmonies, and a fast, driving tempo.
The musical genre took its name from the Blue Grass Boys, and Monroe’s music forever has defined the sound of classical bluegrass – a five-piece acoustic string band, playing precisely and rapidly, switching solos and singing in a plaintive, high lonesome voice.
If he were alive today, Monroe would be 101 years on Sept. 11. To celebrate the Kentuckian legacy, Bergthorson Academy of Musical Arts is hosting a “Happy Birthday Bill Monroe” party, featuring the Juno-nominated John Reischman and the Jaybirds, a band scramble and several workshops.
Reischman is a mandolin master of the highest caliber, having garnered praise from every corner of the music world for his tasteful, classic, and versatile technique. He cut his teeth with West Coast groups of now-legendary status – the Tony Rice Unit and the Good Ol’ Persons.
It was a shared loved of Reischman’s mandolin work that brought The Jaybirds together. The band is made up of master bluegrass pickers from the West Coast, and includes guitarist Jim Nunally, bassist/vocalist Trisha Gagnon, banjo picker Nick Hornbuckle and fiddler Greg Spatz.
Playing a gig to celebrate legendary Bill Monroe was something Reischman couldn’t turn down.
“He was a real creative guy, a force of nature,” he says.
The Jaybirds most recent CD was released in 2011 – Monroe’s 100th birthday – and included a cover of The First Whippoorwill.
Reischman and the Jaybirds plan to sing several Monroe songs at the birthday bash.
Monroe described his music as, ”Scottish bagpipes and ole-time fiddlin’. It’s Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It’s blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound.”
It’s a fitting description for a genre that’s sometimes disregarded as “hilly billy music” or considered “simple.”
The typical scenario, says Reischman, “you hire a bluegrass band and there’s hay bales on stage.”
“I get tired of that misconception because it takes a lot of skill to be able to play that music,” added Reischman, who picked up the mandolin as a teenager to set himself apart from everyone who was playing guitar.
“I remember reading an interview with Ravi Shankar and he was raving about the dexterity of bluegrass musicians.”
He admits it took a little while to get truly hooked on Monroe.
“His music is kind of raw and passionate,” says Reischman, who eventually realized that’s exactly what he loved about bluegrass music – its stories, its fervour and spirit.
“I was driven to learn it and that became my livelihood.”
– with files from billmonroe.com