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Bill Monroe
Father Of Bluegrass (DVD)

Review By Steven Stone
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  First released on VHS in the mid 90's, this documentary deifies Bill Monroe as the founder of bluegrass music and as an all around swell guy. Whether the film crosses the line between documentary and puff piece depends on how you view Monroe's legacy and personality.

Not even the most hardcore bluegrass crank would dispute that Bill Monroe was the progenitor of the music that has become known as bluegrass. From the first recordings with his brother Charlie, Bill Monroe mutated rustic string-band music into a hard driving urban sound. Monroe also had a profound influence on rock and roll through Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, and of course Elvis: a man who was responsible for creating some "Powerful royalty checks" for Monroe from his version of "Blue Moon of Kentucky." In all ways Monroe was a towering figure, from his physical presence to his influence on the American musical scene during the past 50 years.

This film, Father of Bluegrass, does an excellent job detailing Bill Monroe's importance to American music. In this regard it's essential viewing for anybody who loves folk, rock, or bluegrass music. Where the movie falls flat is its desire to portray Bill Monroe as a friendly, emotionally accessible father figure. By all accounts Bill Monroe was stern, stubborn, a skinflint with band-members' pay, and prone to taking musical credit for compositions written by musicians while under his employ. In short, Bill wasn't always a nice guy.

This documentary cheerfully glosses over all Monroe's personal and professional foibles. Interviewees, who include many past band members, have nary a discouraging word to say about Bill. I have several explanations for their overly sunny sound bites – Bill was still alive when this film was made, and in the insular world of bluegrass badmouthing Mr. Monroe was tantamount to treason, punishable by excommunication. After Flatt and Scruggs left Bill's Band he didn't talk to them or tolerate any mention of their names for nearly 30 years. By burnishing Bill's legend anyone associated with Monroe also increased his or her own musical stock. Peter Rowan, who co-wrote "Walls of Time" with Monroe, displays a studiedly country gentleman image not unlike that of Monroe during his prime. It's clear that Rowan sees himself as an inheritor of Monroe's legacy. Whether Rowan's "Free Mexican Air Force" rivals Monroe's "Jerusalem Ridge" will be for later generations to decide.

The film is well paced and logically structured so it never drags while presenting its case for a kinder, gentler, Monroe. The DVD's technical quality is certainly better than the original videotape version. The overall sound and picture quality are good enough so viewers can enjoy the film without distraction, but no better. By way of bonus features the DVD includes a live performance from late in Monroe's career. Even then Monroe could still "whip that mandolin like a mule" when the spirit moved him.

Anyone who loves bluegrass music needs the DVD Father of Bluegrass in his or her library. But I implore you to also acquire a copy of Richard D. Smith's book Can't You Hear Me Callin' so you can have a balanced picture of the complex human being known as Bill Monroe.





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