Book Review: On The Bus With Bill Monroe

On the Bus with Bill Monroe
My Five-Year Ride with the Father of Blue Grass

By Mark Hembree

New this spring is an interesting and entertaining book by bassist Mark Hembree who was a Blue Grass Boy from 1979 to 1984. He had been a long-hair folk rock guitar picker and singer around Appleton Wisconsin until he saw the Denver bluegrass band “The Monroe Doctrine” at Lawrence University. That was it, he became a bluegrass fiend.

Eventually he moved to Denver and made his living as a pro bluegrasser with Monroe Doctrine until they broke up, and he moved back to Milwaukee. Attending a Wisconsin bluegrass festival where Bill Monroe was appearing, the word went around that Bill’s bass player had just left the band. Mark’s friends pushed him into auditioning. Mark’s wife cut his long hair prior to the audition! He got the job by bopping through “Road to Columbus” (and soon learned he was expected to stand still and look dignified). The tough part was telling his wife they were moving to Nashville!

The book is based on a combination of Mark’s memories and notes from a journal he kept. He states right up front that he will avoid any discussion of Bill’s private life with girlfriends, as other authors have already been there. That’s OK by me — he has plenty of VERY interesting stories to tell without any of that.

Like other Blue Grass Boys who have written about their time with Bill Monroe (Butch Robins, Bob Black, Tom Ewing, Gene Lowinger and others), Mark makes it clear that he had the highest possible regard for Monroe, but also suffered under Bill’s mysterious and off-putting interpersonal habits. Mark adds a new touch, being a Yankee from up north, thrown in with a busload of older Southerners. He includes a page of Blue Grass Boys’ southern terms translated into “Yankee”. At first he was hazed pretty badly, but after he pushed back (an interesting story in itself) they slowly accepted him into the team. Monroe and Kenny Baker even came to trust him with the merchandise table. There’s a surprise tidbit of admiration about Monroe’s ability with a baseball, too.

Mark writes up a variety of interesting vignettes; covering festivals and concerts, recording sessions, health issues, money, non-musical activites, bus life, travel, and particularly fascinating to me – stories about Monroe’s attitude about drinking, especially beer which Monroe called “that slop”. Along the way there are plenty of familiar quotes: “That ain’t no part of nuthin”, etc. Welcome touches are stories about fellow Blue Grass Boys Wayne Lewis (guitar), Butch Robins (banjo) and Kenny Baker. Baker in particular comes off as a very fascinating guy.

Mark touches lightly on his decision to leave the Blue Grass Boys and co-found the Nashville Bluegrass Band with Alan O’Bryant, Pat Enright and Mike Compton. He left that band (and the music business) only because of a horrific band bus crash on a rainy interstate that injured him very badly.

This book is perhaps the best written and edited of the several books about life with Bill Monroe. Since leaving music Mark has made his living in the publishing business, and it shows in the quality of writing and editing here. (Some of the other similar books seemed to have had no editing at all…) There are some good photos too.

I got my e-copy from Amazon Kindle. Real ink-on-paper copies are available too.

Aside from being a great source of trivia (hint-hint to the Bluegrass Trivia players), this book and its ilk certainly take the glamour out of Bill Monroe’s blue grass career. After reading this book, it’s a wonder that any good musicians ever stuck it out with Monroe at all. Sobering…

Highly recommended reading.

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