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The Bluegrass Reader (Music in American Life)

By Thomas Goldsmith (editor)

University of Illinois Press, 376 pages, $34.95 hardcover

Reviewed by David McPherson, September 2004

Find it on Amazon
Music critic, record producer, songwriter - Thomas Goldsmith is truly a man of letters. Through 63 carefully selected essays and articles, his meticulously edited The Bluegrass Reader explores the personalities, the stories, the instruments and of course the music, behind what folklorist Allan Lomax once dubbed, "folk music in overdrive."

In his detailed introduction that sets the stage for the historical hoedown to come, Goldsmith reveals that bluegrass was a product of the post-World War Two atmosphere in the United States as "Americans opened their ears to more different kinds of music than ever before."

Goldsmith shows how and why bluegrass was born in the latter half of the twentieth century, and chronicles the rise of this high and lonesome sounding music.

Starting with the generally accepted thesis that Bill Monroe was the genre's founding father in 1945, Goldsmith groups bluegrass into three distinct eras: "The Big Bang: 1939-1959," "The Reseeding of Bluegrass: 1960-1979",and "Another Roots Revival: 1980-2000." These three divisions are well chosen as they represent three distinct eras in the evolution of bluegrass and provide the reader with a sense of context for this barnstorming music's history.

Equal parts musical history and bluegrass biography, Goldsmith gathers a wide range of writers culled from the past 40 years. Articles that appeared in publications such as the bluegrass bible - Bluegrass Unlimited, and the now deceased Muleskinner News are matched alongside profiles from mainstream consumer publications such as Esquire to create a narrative that is cohesive and flows seamlessly.

Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson even makes an appearance through his essay on the Greenbriar Boys entitled "New York Bluegrass" that originally was published in The Fear and Loathing Letters, vol. 1: The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967. From Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs to modern-day purveyors of bluegrass such as Alison Krauss and Ricky Skaggs, Goldsmith traces the roots of this old-time music - giving readers a perfect primer of the genre.

The Bluegrass Reader is the ideal companion for bluegrass neophytes and fanatic fans alike. There is even a wonderfully witty essay by Connie Walker from 1972 that touches on feminism. Walker, wife of bluegrass musician Ebo Walker, describes the dilemma of "bluegrass widows": "Well girls, it's happening again. Your husband has been vague since the first warm day, he has a glassy look about his eyes and his conversation all revolves around the family's summer festival schedule."

This advice might still be relevant today by men or women after their spouses read this book since it's a well written chronology would make a bluegrass fan out of anyone that gets lost in its engaging essays.