CAN'T YOU HEAR ME CALLIN' The Life Of Bill Monroe by Richard D. Smith
BOOK: CAN'T YOU HEAR ME CALLIN The Life of Bill Monroe by Richard D. Smith(Da Capo Press, 2000) 365 pages, paperback. Many of those who will read this long-awaited biography can honestly say that their lives have been changed or at least seriously affected by Bill Monroe and his music. In short, Richard Smith has tackled a monster project and he has done it very well. Like this reader, many will have a hard time putting this book down; at the end I was left wanting to hear more about the man, more of the little stories, anecdotes and recollections that each of us has or has heard about and I guess that is one sign of a successful and good book.
In a well structured, basically chronological account of Monroe's life, Smith candidly tackles some of the subjects that were routinely avoided in print during Monroe's life out of respect for a larger than life personality. To his credit, Smith does not sensationalize the facts but he doesn't shy away from either. In some 35 pages of notes that are sometimes as interesting as the main narrative, Smith cites dozens of sources including family members, musicians and many of the women in Monroe's life. Things that were long exaggerated, downplayed or distorted by rumor are now for the most part put straight or at least discussed: Bill's split with his brother Charlie and their subsequent reunions, the feuds with Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, the circumstances of Kenny Baker's departure from the Blue Grass Boys, the fued with the Gibson company over his mandolin, his daughter Melissa's illness and death, the vandalization of his mandolin late in his life, and Monroe's relationship with his wife Carolyn, Bessie Lee Maudlin, Hazel Smith, Julia LeBella, Della Streeter and Virginia Stauffer.
There is ample discussion of Monroe's music itself including stories about the origins of some of his songs & tunes but not very much new insight is provided there. And, although this is not a criticism of a very well written book, I would have loved to have read another 50 to 100 pages covering incidents and recollections that would have really fleshed out an already solid work. What about Monroe's silent treatment of Porter Wagoner(because Porter when he recorded a version of Uncle Pen added a nonsense verse"Uncle Pen was a fine old man, he washed his face in a frying pan"). What about Monroe's back alley fight with Ernest Tubb at the Ryman? What about the poignant story Carlton Haney tells about Monroe choking up at the death of a mare on his farm and trying to hide his emotions from Haney? What about Larry Richardson standing up to Monroe when Bill questioned his driving ability from the back seat of his touting limo in the early 1950's? Obviously no one could include even a small fraction of all the stories that so many could tell and an attempt to make this book perfect could have delayed it indefinitely. So hats off to the author for a sound, well-presented work on one of the most fascinating personalities of our lifetime. This is MUST READING for any Bluegrass fan. $15.00