Early in September, I had the pleasure of being able to attend the Monroe Mandolin Camp held in a beautiful setting in Kingston Springs, Tennessee, just West of Nashville. Mike Compton and Heidi Herzog went to great efforts to produce and host a delightful experience. What a good time I had. If you are interested in Bill Monroe style mandolin, or Bill and his music, this is an excellent place for beginning, intermediate, and advanced students.
It seems to me that every mandolinist should be interested in the mandolin style of Bill Monroe. That some are not is a bit mysterious to me.
The mandolin and mandolin family of instruments are versatile. Vivaldi and Telemann wrote orchestral pieces for the mandolin, which are fabulous to my ear. There are jazz mandolinists, folk mandolinists, blues mandolinists, and of course, bluegrass mandolinists. The mandolin is comfortable in just about any musical genre.
No mandolin education is complete, though, without at least some understanding of Bill Monroe and his role in the modern renaissance of the mandolin. And it seems to me that modern renaissance is just what we are experiencing — mandolins, mandolas, mando-cellos, mandolin music, mandolin forums, mandolin camps, and mandolin luthiers making incredibly good instruments, rivaling in sound and workmanship some of the ancient ones so coveted. It is a wonderful thing.
If you like Bill Monroe, understand Bill Monroe, and are moved by the powerful music that he fathered, then the camp was a resplendent retreat into a world no longer admired by a significant number of bluegrassers. This is the most mysterious thing of all to me, as there are definitely those who love bluegrass music, but like it smooth, blended, and compressed. To my ear, much of modern bluegrass is too homogenized, lacking raw power and dynamics, nor containing any essence of the blues, which was a thread woven all throughout the music of Bill Monroe.
The late Ed Dye, who taught so many of us so much, guided me gently and delicately without saying so, and let me make a great discovery all on my own (or so I thought). Contained within the music of Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers, and Charley Patton, there is an unbroken strand, a common thread, a resilient fiber that binds them all together. It is not easy for most folks to hear, at least it wasn’t for me; but once I heard it, I could not help but hearing it.
I am not trying to persuade or dissuade anyone about what it is that they may like or not like. We have different kinds of music because of talent, vision, culture, and taste. If you don’t like rutabagas, my telling you to like them will not make them taste better on your tongue…but it can be mysterious to me. Well, not rutabagas, actually, since I don’t like them either, won’t eat them, and can hardly bear to smell them cooking. Some folks are like this about Bill Monroe, even those who are solidly entrenched in bluegrass music. This, however, is beyond mysterious to me. More mysterious, perhaps, than those who would argue over the last serving of rutabagas.
But then again, I like Bill Monroe. It’s not that I think we should all be clones of Bill Monroe, playing everything exactly as Bill played it. Those arguments that exist among Bluegrassers are the square of tedium, wasting time and energy, leaving no one persuaded of anything other than the observers who are perhaps only persuaded of the strident nature of those who would argue about something so subjective.
Mike Compton has taken the style of Bill Monroe and created something unique, rhythmically and tonally different, and found a musical expression that strongly suggests Monroe, but is exclusively Mike Compton. This is what every creative musician should strive for, in my opinion.
“How do I develop my own style? How do I sound like me?” are easier questions to ask one’s self than they are to answer.
To do that, you have to become like Bill Monroe, or any other musical renegade. You have to take chances. You have to be bold. You have to suffer criticism. You have to have a spine of steel as straight as those eight strings spread across a short, narrow fingerboard. Bill created music where none had existed before. He took the music he heard in his head and expressed it the best way he could. This is what all artists do. Sometimes, even most times, it is a lonesome path. No matter….the artist is driven. How fortunate we are to have them, to know them, to have heard them, to have sat at their feet, mesmerized.
Many of us throughout generations have heard this in Bill Monroe. Many of us listened carefully. Many of us still do. It touches our souls enough to change them forever. Music is like that.
Thanks, Mike and Heidi! And thanks to all the instructors who gave so much of themselves.
Thanks to all the new friends I made, and the old friends I got to visit with. Nothing rejuvenates your musical soul like several days spent simply playing music you love with others who love it, too.
A special shout to Gary Darling, my roommate for the week; my camp next door neighbor, Terry Bullin, with whom I shared many a delightfully obscure Monroe tune; Tom Woodley, who pleasantly surprised me by teaching me some things I did not expect to learn; and to the kind heart and spirit of the incredibly talented David Davis.
Tony Williamson is always a treasure, and more than anyone else I personally know, can move swiftly and competently from Classical, to Jazz, to Bluegrass, and entertain us with music, stories, and a flamboyant and infectious joie de vries.
If you are a mandolinist, this will be a good place to be come next September.
©2015 Mississippi Chris Sharp