Author: Martin, George

Me and Bill Monroe

Next Tuesday is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Bill Monroe. Back in 1996 I wrote this account of my meeting with Big Mon, which took place while I was in high school and just starting to puzzle out my first tune on the mandolin. It appeared in the Bluegrass Breakdown, but I presume most of those who read it back then have since forgotten, so...

Back in the 1930s there was a big quonset hut-shaped building called the Dream Bowl about halfway between Vallejo and Napa where Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys and the big band stars of the day performed regularly.

After World War II the place evolved into a major country music spot catering to the thousands of new Californians who had come west to work in the war industries and stayed on. By the time I became aware of the place as a young high school student in Crockett, the little sugar mill town on the Carquinez Strait, it was being run by a man named Jack Schultz, who had adopted the stage name “Blackjack Wayne.”

Everybody loved Blackjack. He wore a black western shirt with 21 points worth of aces and kings embroidered on it, and had a big leather belt and holsters with two chrome .45 caliber Colt revolvers (fortunately loaded with blanks) that he liked to shoot off when he came on stage.

He had an excellent house band called the Roving Gamblers: fiddle, piano (and the piano player doubled on fiddle for twin-fiddle numbers), drums, bass, lead and rhythm guitar. The rhythm guitarist fronted the band, allowing Blackjack to schmooze in the bar and make one or two short appearances each night.

Blackjack was a disc jockey at a little dawn-to-sundown radio station in Vallejo, KNBA. He promoted his weekend shows relentlessly on the radio, as well as his Saturday afternoon TV show at KTVU in Oakland. A visiting country act would be hyped on the radio all week, then appear for a song or two on the TV show, and do the Saturday night gig at the Dream Bowl.

Crowds were healthy. When just the house band was in town the door charge was $1.50. If Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Faron Young, Eddie Cochran, Rose Maddox, Jerry Lee Lewis or other stars of the day were playing, it went up to $2.

Tommy Duncan sang there regularly, recreating the wonderful Bob Wills sound, and a few times even Wills himself was on hand. The Maddox Brothers and Rose had several reunion shows there, too, with “Cal the Laughing Boy” and “Friendly Henry, the working girl’s friend” performing the music that had made them so popular in the 1940s.

One day in 1958 Blackjack booked Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. This may have been the first time Monroe ever came to California, and I don’t know where else in the West he played.

It was a big deal for me because KNBA rarely played bluegrass. Don Reno and Red Smiley had a hit about then with “Eastbound Freight Train,” and that got played, but it featured acoustic guitar and no banjo. The only bluegrass I had heard at that time was Earl Scruggs instrumentals, which the radio disc jockeys used to “take us up to news time” when they didn’t want to interrupt a Kitty Wells song for a network news feed.

Scruggs’ banjo fascinated me, but I had no idea how a 5-string banjo worked, or where I could get one. So I started learning chords on a ukulele and working out melodies on an old mandolin we had around the house.

Although my father noodled around on the mandolin a bit, he couldn’t really play it. And the idea that one might chord a mandolin was completely foreign to me.

Thus I entered the Dream Bowl that night unaware that my musical consciousness was about to be expanded in a major way.

You read a lot about how rock ‘n’ roll made times hard for bluegrass bands, but the Dream Bowl was packed that night, and it was rocking. As was my usual practice, I wormed my way forward through the crowd until I was right in front of the stage, which was raised about three feet above the dance floor. The Roving Gamblers played the first set, covering many of the top tune of the day. As usual, Blackjack came on stage just before the band was through, and sang “Corrina, Corrina” (I have no trouble remembering because he sang “Corrina” every week. It was apparently his favorite of the three or four songs I ever heard him perform. Then he introduced Bill Monroe.

I was rooted to the spot, slack-jawed in wonder as Monroe and his band played. I don’t remember the set list, just his wonderful flood of notes and harmonies, and that Monroe was wearing a muted plaid jacket and white Stetson hat.

I also remember that the crowd went nuts, stomping, clapping and cheering. The set went on a long time and it was obvious Monroe was enjoying himself hugely; thousands of miles from his home region his music was having a tremendous impact.

Only one band member stands out in my mind. The bass player was a woman. At the time I thought she was “old” but in retrospect she was probably about 40. She wore a beautiful blue silk brocade cocktail dress, a blonde bouffant hairdo (this was the ’50s, remember) and high-heeled shoes with those pointy little toes that ruined so many women’s feet. In reading up on bluegrass history in later years I learned she was Bessie Lee Mauldin.

As the set wore on, Ms. Mauldin was suffering. From my perch on the stage front about ten feet away I could see her shifting her weight from foot to foot. Eventually she started signaling Monroe that the set should end pretty soon, but every time he announced a “last number” the cheers just got louder and he played several encores.

Eventually, though, the show ended and Monroe made his way off stage and sat down on one of the wooden benches that lined the walls of the Dream Bowl. He was closely pursued by Yours Truly, who, as I have mentioned before, had never seen or heard a mandolin being used as a rhythm instrument. My mind was racing with all that I had seen and heard. My life was changed forever.

I managed to sit next to Monroe on the bench and get his attention. In the heat of the moment, eloquence totally escaped me and I blurted out, “How do you DO that?”

What I meant to say, calmly, was, “Mr. Monroe I’ve never seen anyone play chords on a mandolin. Can you show me a couple of the common forms?”

If I had had the wit to ask that way, I might be able to say truthfully, “Bill Monroe gave me my first mandolin lesson.” Instead, he looked at me like I was crazy, which I no doubt appeared to be. Bill Monroe’s stare is a powerful thing, as many better musicians than I can attest. I realized I had made a faux pas (“screwed up” I would have said at the time) and I slunk away.

Many years later I told this story to Rick Shubb, who recalled that he and a bunch of other people who would later become the core of the Berkeley bluegrass scene were also in that crowd. If I had met them perhaps I wouldn’t have wandered in the wilderness for so long, playing an old open-back banjo with a flat pick (in guitar tuning) and and committing other sins against bluegrass, before finally teaching myself to pick three-finger style off of the two or three Flatt & Scruggs albums I was able to obtain.

About six years later Monroe returned to Berkeley for the legendary Saturday night school concert that had to be canceled after he got food poisoning at a local restaurant where he was taken for a seafood dinner. The audience was told to come back the next afternoon and Monroe put on a dynamite show.

After that California tours became a fairly regular thing for the Blue Grass Boys. They played the Great American Music Hall, Strawberry, the Midsummer Grass Valley Festival and other venues.

I never spoke face-to-face with the man again, although after 38 years of listening to and performing his music [nearing 50 years now] , I do have a vague idea of how you DO that.

Posted:  9/8/2011

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