Tony Rice's new The Bill Monroe Collection shows how the music style Monroe invented endures.
In 1953, Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, was driving home to Nashville in the early hours of the morning with his bass player and girlfriend Bessie Mauldin. According to Richard Smith's 2001 Monroe biography Can't You Hear Me Calling, Mauldin noticed there was a vehicle coming towards them, and told Monroe, "Bill, he's coming into our lane, get over."
Monroe, though, was having none of it. He was in the right lane, by God, and there was no way he was going to let some random idiot run him out of it. "Let him get over!" he said. Seconds later, they collided. Mauldin wasn't seriously hurt, but Monroe broke 19 bones, including his spine, and avulsed one of his eyes out of its socket. Even so, he got himself out of the wreck, walked around to Mauldin's side of the car, and pulled her free of the wreckage. After he was taken to the hospital, he was in a body cast for three months.
Monroe, in short, was a stubborn, stubborn man. Bluegrass, the music he created, has been stubborn too; a rough-hewn bone lodged irremovably in country music's smooth pop larynx. Last September marked what would have been Monroe's 100th birthday, and his music stands alone among the mélange of early country styles that were current when he was performing in the '30s, '40s, and '50s. Western swing, hillbilly boogie, honky tonk, rockabilly, blues, old timey -- they're all been assimilated into a largely undifferentiated substratum, barely audible under country's dominant blend of retro-pop and retro-rock. Only bluegrass remains a coherent subgenre, and as such, a touchstone of authenticity. When Patty Loveless wanted to show her rootsy bona-fides a couple years back on her Mountain Soul II album, she naturally gravitated to bluegrass, covering (among other things) the traditional, Monroe-associated "Working on a Building" in the company of reigning bluegrass king Del McCoury.