A Surprising Trip Through Bluegrass Country

Bill Monroe a legend of bluegrass music, which has been played on porches and in homes for generations. He would have been 100 years old this year. On the anniversary of his birth, writer Jason Cherkis journeyed through Kentucky to see how the musical genre has continued to evolve. He chronicles his trip in this week's Washington Post Magazine. He speaks with Michel Martin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: And now, it's time to open up the pages of The Washington Post magazine, something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now.

Today, we have a story about the staying power of one of this country's most distinctive forms of folk music, bluegrass. Last week, bluegrass legend Bill Monroe would have been 100 years old. If you're not familiar with that genre, here's just a little taste of Bill Monroe's sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUEGRASS MUSIC)

MARTIN: That is the sound that sent Jason Cherkis on a musical quest, searching for the roots of bluegrass. He started in Bill Monroe's birthplace, Rosine, Kentucky. It's a tiny town that, as the saying goes, blink and you'll miss it.

Jason Cherkis wrote about his experience traveling through the heart of bluegrass country in a piece for The Washington Post magazine titled "The Moon Over Kentucky" and he's with us now.

Jason, thanks so much for joining us.

JASON CHERKIS: Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: The idea that there is a father of a musical genre, I think is something that might be surprising to many people. You know, I don't know that we think of, like, the father of jazz, for example, or the father of gospel.

CHERKIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: So in what way was Bill Monroe the father of bluegrass?

CHERKIS: Well, the genre had never been created before, the use of the drumless sound, the combining of old time traditional folk music, gospel and jazz. No one had really heard anything like it before, this sort of combination of instruments and the sort of set style that he had perfected. And he came up with that, just sort of on his own and through trial and error, through tryouts, through ups and downs in his early music career.

MARTIN: Did he have a sense, in his own lifetime, that this was something important that needed to be shaped and loved and nurtured, or was it just something fun for him to do? It was just something he liked?

CHERKIS: I think, like all great musicians, it was something that he couldn't stop perfecting and performing, like it just sort of came out of him. Just in the same way that, with jazz, you know, Miles Davis - I don't think he had a particular love for a particular genre of jazz that he sort of invented. I think that it was just sort of a journey that he went on.

I think that, with Bill Monroe, in a way, he never stopped. I mean, he never stopped writing songs. He toured constantly and I think that he, at first, was pretty skeptical of the modern audience. During the folk revival, a lot of, you know, New York folk artists and collectors sort of sought him out. And I think, at first, he was really skeptical of them and their motivations.

But he came to see them as, obviously, respectful of him, and then he sort of had a second career during the '60s folk revival.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Jason Cherkis. He wrote a piece for this week's Washington Post magazine about the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe. His 100th birthday would have been last week.

But I want to play a little bit from an artist that you ran into while you were on your journey through Kentucky. His name is Ralph Stanley, II. He's the son of another bluegrass legend. Let's listen to a song of his. This is called "Lord, Help Me Find the Way."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LORD, HELP ME FIND THE WAY")

RALPH STANLEY, II: (Singing) Trying to fill his shoes is the hardest thing I know. It's not living for the legend. It's the debt that I love so. So Lord, help me find the way, to bless me with the words that I want to say.

MARTIN: So tell us a little bit more about Ralph Stanley, II.

CHERKIS: Well, I met him in a parking lot in a very, very small town in the middle of Kentucky. And he was in his minivan with his band, and getting ready for a show. And I couldn't have met a nicer guy, somebody who obviously has, you know, as the song suggests, somewhat of a burden, you know, with his name and, you know, who his father is.

But I think he took it in stride. I think he takes it in stride, and sort of answers the test with integrity. He's his own person, but you couldn't help but notice, in the performance that I saw, that he constantly talked up his father and talked about his father to the audience. As if, kind of in a way, not just sort of addressing the elephant in the room, but also making it OK for the audience to, sort of, acknowledge him, acknowledge his father and acknowledge the sort of passing of time. It was quite interesting.

MARTIN: What was the elephant in the room?

CHERKIS: That he is not his father, that he doesn't sound anything like his dad. And that's been, I think, in some, you know, sort of critic's circles, a slight against Ralph II.

MARTIN: Well, that's kind of a question I had, though, is that, you know, with gospel music, which is another, you know, distinctive American art form. And there are the people - the purists. You know, like jazz, and any time anybody takes it to another level, somebody's going to be mad. And he's like, well, what are you doing with those drums? Or what is that about? You know, what is all that, you know, R&B stuff going on in here?

And so is the same true of bluegrass, that there are people who are trying to sort of evolve? (Unintelligible) those people are mad, you know.

CHERKIS: Well, I think that there are strains of bluegrass that I didn't cover in the piece, such as what's known as new grass or jam grass, which incorporates elements of - more elements of rock into the mix. And I'm not so sure - I mean, I know the audiences that I saw, at the various barn shows that I went to, I'm not sure that they would be that into it.

With Ralph, he plays a mix. I mean, it's a mix of country stuff that you'd hear in the '80s - you know, whether it's George Strait or Randy Travis - but he'd also he threw in a number of the Stanley Brothers' songs, as well as songs that Bill Monroe played. You know, he's most famous for "Rawhide" and that's one of his more famous instrumentals.

And at the show that I saw, Ralph II played it and, you know, he has a great band and I think that that's part of it. Is, you know, when you can get up on stage and you have a great band, and you're earnest, and you show that you care and you have a good voice, I think you can pretty much win over anybody. And by the end of the show, he was getting standing ovations.

MARTIN: But I do think the question, though, is the underlying question in your piece. What's the future of bluegrass? This is the type of music that is played on public radio, of course, and at festivals, you know, folk life festivals and stuff, but not a lot of commercial radio play.

And so did you get a sense that this was an art form that is falling away, except in the places where it was born and it's kind of cherished and nurtured? What assessment do you get of what the future is?

CHERKIS: I think it's hard to say. I guess, sort of, you know, defending bluegrass, not much is played on the radio except for, you know, a few top 40 songs. So it's pretty much - I don't think it really has ever been played on the radio since the '60s.

I do think that, you know, when I went to the museum in Owensboro and, granted, it's close to the Bill Monroe home place and there is, you know, a really nice bluegrass museum. They had lessons for kids or for anybody that wanted to come in and learn how to play. And the lessons were packed with - not just middle-aged people who wanted to just, sort of, pick up a banjo and see if they can learn how to play it - but also really, really young kids.

And I don't know there that will ever be a crossover top 40 hit for bluegrass, but I think it's doing pretty well in, sort of, the small towns and, at least in Kentucky, that I saw.

MARTIN: Jason Cherkis' piece for The Washington Post magazine is titled "The Moon Over Kentucky." If you'd like to read it in its entirety, and we hope you will, we'll link to it on our website. Just go to NPR.org, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE.

Jason, thanks so much for talking to us.

CHERKIS: Thanks for having me on.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, we're going to play a little bit of Bill Monroe's famous "Blue Moon of Kentucky."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE MOON OF KENTUCKY")

BILL MONROE: (Singing) Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining. Shine on the one that's gone and proved untrue. Blue moon of Kentucky, keep on shining. Shine on the one that's gone and left me blue.

MARTIN: Just ahead, in the new book, "You Are Not Alone," Jermaine Jackson offers a very personal look at the triumphs and struggles of his little brother, Michael.

JERMAINE JACKSON: This is designed to show the human side of Michael.

MARTIN: Jermaine Jackson with an intimate look at the life and death of the King of Pop. That is next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUE MOON OF KENTUCKY")

MONROE: (Singing) Shine on the one that's gone and said goodbye.

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