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Can't You Hear Me Callin': The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass Paperback – October 2, 2001

4.5 out of 5 stars 52 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The legendary mandolinist and bandleader Bill Monroe wove his personal vision through more than 60 tireless years of recording and performing, inventing almost single-handedly the music that is now known--in a nod to his first band, the Blue Grass Boys--as bluegrass. In his thoughtful biography Can't You Hear Me Callin', Richard D. Smith argues that "no single artist has had as broad an impact on American music." As evidence, he highlights dozens of country and rock & roll musicians, both white and black, who were inspired by Monroe's powerful mandolin playing on the Grand Ole Opry's weekly broadcasts. (Chuck Berry's "Maybelline," for example, is an almost note-for-note copy of Monroe's instrumental "Ida Red.") Until now, however, Monroe's hesitation to reveal personal details has kept his personality as mysterious as one of the foggy mountaintops he sang about in his signature high lonesome tenor.

Bluegrass audiences required a rural, Southern authenticity from the "Father of Bluegrass," and Monroe was slow to deny their exaggerations. Smith, however, dismisses many of the backwoodsy stories that grew up around the Monroe myth, instead emphasizing truer biographical elements: loneliness, fear of abandonment, compulsiveness with women. Perhaps the book's main scholarly step forward is the depth of interviews and research the author conducted with the women in Monroe's life. Indeed, Smith remarks that "without exception," none of Monroe's platonic or romantic women friends had been interviewed before. These women reveal a second Bill Monroe, relaxed and gentle in private despite his imperious manner onstage.

Much of the book relies on the archives of the late Ralph Rinzler, a Smithsonian folklorist whose plans to write a Monroe biography were thwarted by his untimely death. Taking up where Rinzler left off, Smith employs solid scholarship and thorough fieldwork, yet he remains clearly in awe of his subject, ranking him as a "true giant of American music" on the level of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Hank Williams, and Charles Ives. Can't You Hear Me Callin' is the first published attempt at a comprehensive, critical biography of Bill Monroe. Surely, it won't be the last--a testament to the enigmatic genius whose every note extended one of our most emotive and demanding musical genres. --Edward Skoog --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

By the time of his death, Bill Monroe (1911^-96) was a major icon of American music, revered as the man who singlehandedly created an entire musical genre, bluegrass. Smith, the author of the excellent Bluegrass: An Informal Guide (1995), offers a thoughtful, somewhat subdued account of Monroe, tracing his life from a music-rich but isolated childhood in the pastoral backroads of Kentucky to his early years as a struggling professional musician to his well-deserved status as an acclaimed elder statesman and musical ambassador. Forging a style that was both traditional and sophisticated, Monroe appealed to urban and rural audiences with heart-on-sleeve confessional lyrics and dazzling displays of instrumental virtuosity on his own mandolin, complemented, at a minimum, by banjo, fiddle, guitar, and bass. His influence can be heard in the music of everyone from Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly to Jerry Garcia and Ricky Skaggs. Smith mutes potentially sensational matters, such as that Monroe was an incorrigible womanizer, to paint a sensitive, tasteful, well-balanced portrait of a complicated man. June Sawyers
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Series: Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press (October 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306810549
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306810541
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (52 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #365,093 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Smith's book is conflicted. The distinct contribution of this book is not so much what it says about the music. There isn't much here about the music that is new, sustaining, or distinct. In fact, at times, Smith seem to inflate the importance of Monroe in rather trifling ways that really undercut the significance of Monroe.
I am very glad Smith accurately and fairly portrayed the role the late Ralph Rinzler played in really saving Monroe's career and making him more known in the folk revival.
What is interesting is what the book shows about Monroe's character. Despite Smith's desire to guild the lily and create a halo around his hero, he unearths a history of great emotional problems that had a heavy impact on Monroe's life. Smith traces them from the difficult, lonely, childhood Monroe had all the way to Monroe's last days very consistently. Monroe was a compulsive womanizer throughout his life, never faithul in any relationship, usually having a semi permanent mistress in addition whatever common law or legal wife he had, and usually having several other women out on the road.
Plainly, Monroe was small minded and propriatorial about "owning" Bluegrass. He was especially hateful to others like his former employees starting with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs who dared to play it on their own. Monroe refused to speak to Lester and Earl for decades, threatened to fire his own band members for merely talking to Lester and Earl or members of their band, and refused to appear on the same bill at Bluegrass Festivals with them until he was forced too. This despite the fact both Flat and Scruggs retained a professional respect for Monroe then and now, while Lester Flatt and his wife always had a deep personal admiration and care for Monroe.
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Format: Hardcover
a biography comes along that one reads and comes away feeling like they really know the subject...that is certainly true of CAN'T YOU HEAR ME CALLING by Richard D. Smith. Bill Monroe is portrayed in all his glory but also shown as a real person with all the foibles and flaws but also his genius. Living a few miles from his birthpalce Rosine KY I knew of Bill Monroe but until reading this book I had no idea of his many contributions to the music industry. To find he composed many songs that I love but had never connected to Bluegrass (Georgia Rose, Rawhide etc.) was a surprise and makes me anxious to hear more of his music. The author conveyed so well how Bill Monroe the man was a product of a time, a place and a family that so influenced not only his music but also the person he became...one comes way a little more aware of how that is true of all of us.
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By A Customer on July 17, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is a powerful book, and Richard Smith has succeeded in presenting an especially well-rounded portrait of an especially complex individual.
There's been quite a bit of discussion of the book on several Bluegrass oriented internet lists, most of it positive, although there have been a few carping posts on the decision to expose some of unpublished, but oft-rumored, facts and incidents in Monroe's life.
Wisely bypassing the on-going "what is Bluegrass, anyway" debate, the book offers a very common-sensible approach to whether or not Monroe indeed invented the genre -- RDS posits an "auteur" theory of the foundation of Bluegrass, giving WSM the principle credit, but also elevating several others to near-founder status: Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin and, to a lesser, but important extent, Don Reno.
Richard talked to many (if not most) of the (surviving) women in WSM's life; they were seemingly very forthcoming about Bill and his good and bad traits, and their stories are integral to the overall picture. The one person who did not talk to him, who's input would have been invaluable, but who come across much better than I (and, I suspect, many others in the BG world) expected, was Bill's son, James. Input from surviving members of the BG Boys is also critical to the overall success and utility of the book.
One of the complaints that I have: the book is too short, and neglects to cover many of the stories that circulate in the Bluegrass world, either to confirm or debunk.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Bill Monroe's life and career are endlessly fascinating for bluegrass enthusiasts and this book does not disappoint. It not only chronicles his life, the ups and downs of his long career, but also many of the songs he recorded and the background to them. The sad breakup with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs is chronicled here along with his rocky relationship with his older brother Charlie, with whom he partnered in the early days. While idolized as a larger than life figure by many, including those who worked with him, Bill Monroe also had his foibles, particularly in how he handled money and related to women, and these are not glossed over. Highly recommended!
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