Bill Monroe - mandolin, vocals; Douglas Green - guitar, vocals; James Monroe - upright bass, vocals; Roland White - guitar, vocals; Byron Berline - fiddle, vocals; Lamar Grier - 5-string banjo, vocals; Guests :; Sandy Rothman - vocals, mandolin; John McEuen - banjo
The Ash Grove will long be remembered as the West Coast epicenter of the traditional folk, blues and bluegrass revivals of the late 1950s and early 1960s. As such, the Los Angeles venue was a critical component, not only in the careers of many important traditional music artists, but as an educational environment for many younger musicians, songwriters and listeners, providing them with first hand exposure to the best of the best in an intimate setting. In May of 1967, The Ash Grove hosted a week-long residency featuring Bill Monroe, the pioneering band leader, singer, and mandolin player, credited with creating the classic bluegrass sound, as well as the genre's name.
Monroe grew up in Rosine, Kentucky, learning the mandolin at 10 years old and eventually playing with his brothers Birch and Charlie in East Chicago, Indiana starting in 1932. In 1934, Birch left the group, leaving Bill and Charlie to continue as the Monroe Brothers, touring the Midwest and South before signing with Bluebird in 1936. Eventually, Charlie would start a group called the Kentucky Pardners, and Bill set off to start the Kentuckians after a move to Little Rock, Arkansas, and would later launch the Bluegrass Boys when he moved to Atlanta, Georgia. After a 1939 performance at the Grand Ole Opry the Bluegrass Boys' stature increased considerably. The band's fast-paced style which encouraged open tuning, high tenor voices, and demanding solos from individual players, came to be popularly known as "bluegrass" and was named after this group. Monroe's style was not only influential on other country groups but on the development of rock 'n' roll as well, most notably when Elvis Presley recorded Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" in 1954 for his first single with Sun Records.
The 1944 lineup of the Bluegrass Boys, whose lineup shifted many times over the years, featured the pioneering pair of guitarist and vocalist Lester Flatt and banjoist Earl Scruggs, as well as fiddle player Chubby Wise and bassist Howard Watts. Despite frequent personnel changes, the level of musicianship remained consistently strong, whether Monroe was performing with well-seasoned vets or if he was mentoring younger musicians. Like Miles Davis within the context of jazz and Frank Zappa in the context of rock, Bill Monroe was a magnet for the most talented young musicians, many of whom would go on to become bandleaders themselves.
By the time of Monroe's week-long May 1967 Ash Grove residency, the Bluegrass Boys lineup featured Monroe's son James on upright bass, guitarist Doug Green and 5-string banjo player Lamar Grier, in addition to two local musicians, Kentucky Colonel Roland White on additional guitar and fiddle player Byron Berline, who had recorded with The Dillards. Over the course of the week, many notable musicians turned up in the audience. During a Saturday night performance (the second to last night of the engagement presented here), guests included Bay Area multi-instrumentalist Sandy Rothman, a collaborator on several of Jerry Garcia's acoustic projects, and one of the guiding lights of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, John McEuen. Monroe invites each of them up on stage to participate in this set.
They kick the set off with some old time fiddle music in the form of "Sally Goodin," a showcase for fiddler Byron Berline. Spirited versions of "Jimmy Brown The Newsboy" and "Molly and Tenbrooks" follow with exceptional contributions from 5-string banjo picker Lamar Grier. By this point the intimate Ash Grove audience is engaged and begin requesting favorites, many of which Monroe accommodates over the course of the set. This not only pleases those making the requests but lends a delightfully spontaneous air to the proceedings. The first honored request is for the fiddle instrumental "Rye Whiskey" which Monroe arranges to showcase his brilliant mandolin work.
The first of the audience members to be invited to join in next is banjo player John McEuen, whom Monroe entices for some high spirited picking on "Charlotte Breakdown." Following this Monroe invites multi-instrumentalist Sandy Rothman up on stage to lead the band on two numbers. Rothman takes lead vocals on "True Life Blues" and on "Memories Of Mom And Dad;" a prime example of that high lonesome sound made famous by Monroe. The remainder of the set features the core band running through a set of choice numbers and requests beginning with Berline fronting the group on the classic "Orange Blossom Special" (incomplete due to a reel change during the song). That's followed by "Sunny Side Of The Mountain" on which guitarist Doug Green takes the lead.
As the clock strikes midnight White and Berline take a brief breather and the remaining members form a classic Sunday morning string quartet for an outstanding rendition of the hymn "I Saw The Light." This is followed by a request for "Crossing The Cumberlands" which the group obliges providing another fine showcase for banjo picker Lamar Grier. Monroe next encourages Roland White to lead the group on "Little Cabin Home On The Hill" which features White on lead vocals with Monroe joining in on each chorus. Berline leads the way through "Cherokee Waltz" followed by "Walls Of Time," another Doug Green fronted number, leading up to "Listen To The Mockingbird" which concludes with some high velocity instrumentation that will surely dazzle all listeners.
Rapidly approaching the curfew, Monroe solicits a few last minute requests which inspires superb readings of the ballad "Little Girl and The Dreadful Snake" and the nostalgic "I Live In The Past." Wondering if their time is up Monroe checks with Ash Grove owner Ed Pearl who encourages one more and they close the night with "Lee Highway," another high velocity fiddle tune. Amidst applause and shouts for more, Monroe announces that they're slated to play again the following night before they finish with the closing ditty "Y'All Come" whose refrain, "y'all come see us when you can!" is fitting considering their residency at the club.
This same year, Monroe initiated the annual Bean Blossom Festival, a bluegrass festival that would continue into the '90s. In 1970 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He successfully fought off cancer after a 1981 diagnosis and later underwent a successful double coronary bypass ten years later. Performing and hosting at the Grand Ole Opry well into the '90s he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammies in 1993. Following a stroke three years later Monroe passed away on September 9, 1996 at the age of 84.
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