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The Music of Bill Monroe

By Neil V. Rosenberg and Charles K. Wolfe

University of Illinois Press, 384 pages, $35 hardcover

Reviewed by C. Eric Banister, July 2007

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In 2000, musician and author Richard D. Smith released "Can't You Hear Me Callin'," a biography of Bill Monroe, which threw aside much of the hero worship to present a picture of the man behind bluegrass music. It was an important contribution to the study of bluegrass and allowed readers to get to know the man that many found hard to approach or befriend. With "The Music of Bill Monroe," Neil V. Rosenberg and Charles K. Wolfe have done the same for the music of Bill Monroe.

It is not surprising that the combination of Rosenberg, the premier bluegrass historian, and Wolfe, one of the pioneering country music historians, would yield a book that examines every detail of the recording career of the Father of Bluegrass.

Rosenberg, a retired folklore professor, is known for his detailed 1985 book "Bluegrass: a History" that has become universally recognized as the definitive history of the genre. His work in articles and liner notes has shed light on the careers of little known or nearly forgotten artists.

Wolfe was a prolific writer of country music history with books ranging from state musicals histories of Tennessee and Kentucky to the early years of the Grand Ole Opry. Unfortunately, Wolfe passed away last year due to complications of diabetes, but his tireless research remains as his legacy and a testament to his love of both bluegrass and country music.

"The Music of Bill Monroe" focuses on just that, the music. There is little in the way of biographical exposition on Monroe or the musicians who make up the various incarnations of the Blue Grass Boys. What is here is a richly detailed discography that begins with Monroe's first recordings with his brother, Charlie, recordings that the record label had to beg for since performers in the 1930s relied on live and radio appearances rather than album sales.

Be forewarned, this is not a light read or for the casual fan. Both Rosenberg and Wolfe are serious scholars whose research goes deep into the catalogs of Monroe's music. Each chapter represents a timeframe of Monroe's recorded output with detailed recording notes that explain who was in the band, how they came together, where they came together and the origins of many of the songs. Each chapter ends with a very detailed discography complete with master numbers, alternate takes and unreleased sections as well as who played on each one.

If you are serious about your bluegrass and want to know every detail of the recordings of Monroe, this is the book for you. If you are a casual fan, perhaps look into Smith's early biography.