I read somewhere on the interwebs that space is not made of fabric so therefore ripping the time-space continuum is an impossibility. I suppose that should be a comfort. However, how else to explain the strange events inside Nashville’s Tulane Hotel on March 17th, 1951?
Inside one of the rooms sat Grady Martin, Jimmy Selph, Ernie Newton, Tommy Jackson, Farris Coursey, Paul Cohen, Owen Bradley and Bill Monroe. During a few hours that afternoon these men did for a brief moment rip time and space.
But first we digress: The Father of Bluegrass, Bill Monroe, was born today in 1911. If he were still alive I guess that would put him on the side of Smuckers jar – which may be enough to make most of us hope to pass at 99. Jelly jar or not though the man did what so few others have ever done, he came up with something new. At the core he took the old-time string band music passed to him largely by his Uncle Pendleton and the blues taught to him by African-American guitarist Arnold Shultz. Shultz gave Monroe his first paying gig where he backed up the bluesman at a square dance and more importantly showed him the dynamic range of music by going from a driving blues to a sweet ballad.
Years later in 1954 a young Elvis Presley mumbled an apology to Monroe backstage at the Opry for turning the beautiful Blue Moon of Kentucky into a romp. By all accounts the often quick tempered and musically jealous Monroe was kind to Presley and only said if it helps you then do it. I can’t help but think Monroe saw a little of himself in this young man who was so deftly mixing white and black music together.
Bluegrass can be funny about tradition. The idea being don’t mess with a good thing and that perhaps is traced back to that March afternoon in 1951. Owen Bradley who would go on to be one of the most important producers in country music and along with Chet Atkins more or less created the Nashville Sound made records by Loretta Lynn, Brenda Lee, Conway Twitty, Ernest Tubb and was the man that captured Patsy Cline singing Crazy, I Fall to Pieces, and Walkin’ After Midnight. His Nashville beginnings though were a bit more humble as a session musician on piano and organ. On this particular day the Big Mon stood at the microphone and laid down two gospel chestnuts backed by the swelling organ of Owen Bradley. Now listen closely, with headphones, and you’ll hear a faint but noticeable hissing. That sound is the rending of time and space.
All this was done because Monroe’s sales had dipped and producer Paul Cohen (who for the record got things right much more often than wrong – Kitty Wells, Red Foley, Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce) wanted to try something new. And really, good for Monroe for doing it. About that infamous session (there’s a Rushdie joke in here somewhere) Owen Bradley said years later to Eddie Stubbs:
“All that stuff was not really fun to make with Bill, because we were all walking on eggs, and I know he was too. We had no idea what the hell we were doing, to be honest. I think Bill was as bewildered as we were.”
Angels Rock Me To Sleep
Swing Low Sweet Chariot
There’s a mighty fine biography on Bill Monroe called Can’t You Hear Me Callin’ by Richard D. Smith. You should read it.