With acoustic string components that stretch across centuries and a "high lonesome" vocal signature that evokes windblown mountain tops, bluegrass music sounds like an artifact of a pre-industrial America. Yet, for all its hand-hewn craft and plangent "ancient tones," the style is a pure 20th-century dialect roughly contemporaneous with bebop--a small group sound designed, refined, and arguably perfected by just one man, eastern Kentucky mandolinist Bill Monroe. It's common practice for pundits to confer patriarchy on artists who popularize a style, but Monroe's paternity for bluegrass is absolute: without him, the style would not exist.
That achievement is chronicled with care and precision in Steve Gebhardt's superb 90-minute portrait of Monroe, which benefits from extensive interview footage shot three years before Monroe passed away in 1996. Under the gentle interrogation of musical acolytes, folk veteran John Hartford and country-bluegrass star Ricky Skaggs, the white-haired, hawk-faced octogenarian relives his bluegrass genesis. He recounts the pivotal influences of his fiddle-playing Uncle Pen Vandiver (inspiration for Monroe's classic "Uncle Pen") and black bluesman Arnold Schultz, discusses how he came to devise the style's classic instrumentation (fiddle, guitar, banjo, mandolin, and "bull fiddle"), and reminisces about his 1940s emergence as an early star of WSM/Nashville's Grand Ole Opry--a media crucible for modern country music which Monroe played a vital role in building.
Both casual fans and bluegrass fanatics will revel in the completeness of Gebhardt's vision, which expertly weaves the often poignant Monroe interviews (including sweetly moving duets with Hartford and Skaggs) with additional interviews and archival film, television, and still photographs. Past and present members of Monroe's Bluegrass (née Blue Grass) Boys testify to Monroe's sure command of his lifelong franchise, as do an impressive choir of believers including Emmylou Harris, Jerry Garcia, Marty Stuart, and former Bluegrass Boys Del McCoury and Peter Rowan.
Skaggs convincingly traces the vocal harmonies of Monroe's early bands through the Delmore Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys, and the Louvin Brothers to the Everly Brothers and the Beatles. And when Paul McCartney is heard performing a live version of Monroe's de facto anthem, "Blue Moon of Kentucky," the mandolinist's seminal impact on Elvis Presley is undeniable. --Sam Sutherland
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