Hooked on Bluegrass
This is the story of my unlikely love affair with bluegrass music. In 1946, the year before I was to make A Double Life, my career’s only Academy Award performance, I was on location in Macon, Georgia, doing a film for MGM called The Beloved Mr. Sparks. The lovely and talented Jean Arthur, who played my love interest in the film, had just recently turned up pregnant and her quite severe morning sickness, which lasted our entire stay in Macon, put us behind schedule from the very first day. To make matters worse it was a criminally hot and humid late June; the movie’s director, Malcolm Copperstein, was re-writing the script faster than we could shoot it; and our second day in Georgia I received a telegram from my attorney telling me that my third wife had just filed for a divorce claiming "intolerable acts against principles of conjugality"; an offense, I was to learn, that came with a staggering price tag. My only escape from the horrors of the ghastly project came after each day’s filming when I could retreat into my suite at the Swallow’s Inn, a quite lovely hotel just oozing with southern grace that was located in the stately heart of Macon.
There, with a fresh bottle of scotch and New York Times each day, (boiler plate requirements in every movie contract I would ever sign), I found what little peace I could. Until, that is, the room next to mine was given to five very noisy men. That my neighbor would be for the better part of a week a musical act, was, of course, inevitable given everything else that was going on with The Beloved Mr. B; but that the act was comprised of five hillbillies, one of whom played, of all things, a BANJO, and that the group’s drill sergeant of a leader was a relentless task master who kept the quintet in perpetual rehearsal mode was divinely inspired. Complaining to hotel management, I learned very quickly, was an utter waste of time; this cacophonous traveling show, it turned out, was the toast of Macon, of most of the south, really, and was riding a crest of popularity that, to the locals, made a visiting Hollywood film crew of only slightly greater interest than a second rate circus.
Late the second night after the hillbilly band moved into the adjoining suite I’d had enough and decided to take matters into my own hands. I stood knocking at door the for a good five minutes, my pounding obviously drowned out by the raucous number that the band was re-playing for the fifth time. Finally, when the music stopped the door was flung open and I was greeted by a tall, handsome man, impeccably dressed in a beige suit and clutching a tiny instrument to his chest.
“Yes, what is it?” the man drawled in an impatient voice.
“Well, now sir,” I began with all the formality I could muster, “I happen to be staying in the next suite and…”
“Oh, say, you must be that movie star they told us was a’ stayin’ here.” He stepped forward, grabbed my shoulder and pulled me into the room. “Hey, boys, I want you all to meet this here Hollywood movie feller. What’d you say your name was?”
“Colman, Ronald Colman. But see here…”
“Well, now, lemme introduce you to the boys. This here is Lester, this boy holdin’ the banjer is Earl. This one’s called Chubby…guess you can see why. And the doghouse man here is Stringbean. And my name is Bill. We’re called Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys and we’re here in Macon doing a little bit of recordin’ and also doin’ some radio shows here and up the road at Covington and Americus. Now why don’t you come on in and sit a while? I’ll pour you a little bit of some fine Kentucky bourbon and me and the boys’ll play you a few tunes. Whaddah ya say, Rod?"
“Right, right, Ron. You want that with a little ice and water, Ron, or just, you know, the way God mean it to be drunk?”
I rather doubt that anyone had ever…or has since…been introduced to a brand new genre of music in such an intimate and powerful way, and moreover personally introduced by the progenitor of that new genre. Yes, I was utterly captivated, thoroughly hooked, by bluegrass music from the very first number the boys did, a little thing called "My Rose of Old Kentucky." Bill and I have remained good friends since that first meeting in Macon, and we two have shared many a glass of good Kentucky bourbon, drunk the way God meant it to be.
[Note: This is one of several “hooked” stories from creative CBA’ers who have imagined how an historical figure might have become engaged with bluegrass, if they had had that opportunity.]
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