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University of Illinois Press / "On the Bus With Bill Monroe"

"ON THE BUS WITH BILL MONROE: MY FIVE-YEAR RIDE WITH THE FATHER OF BLUE GRASS" by Mark Hembree (University of Illinois Press, 224 pages, $20).

Bassist Mark Hembree's "On the Bus With Bill Monroe" gives us the legendary "Father of Bluegrass" as we've come to know him: intimidating, sometimes imperious and nigh on impossible to really know. The music, of course, was matchless. The music was thrilling — wild yet precise. But the man himself? He was demanding, exacting and exceedingly tough on his band, the Blue Grass Boys. Do we really want to take this ride?

Fortunately, in Hembree, we have an engaging guide to the five years (1979 to 1984) covered in this travelogue/memoir. The result is a book that feels fresh and welcome despite the familiarity of the subject — not because we finally come to understand Monroe in all his complexities, but because we meet a young, wide-eyed musician trying to find his way in the great man's considerable shadow.

Hembree isn't claiming to have written the ultimate book about "Big Mon." This is Hembree's own story, even if he is a sideman to the star of the show. And so first we meet him growing up, near Green Bay, Wisconsin, under the influence of his music-loving dad:

"... [H]e would cook hamburgers and try to tune in the Grand Ole Opry (never a sure thing in northeastern Wisconsin). I sat on his lap, listening to the radio hiss and pop, and soaking up the sweet smell of gin, onions and aftershave, while he talked about the music — how Roy Acuff's voice projected ("he bounces it off the back wall"), how the Dobro complemented the other instruments ("listen to how he builds a platform under them") and how a fiddle could cut through steel like a welding torch."

Hembree eventually took up guitar, discovered girls, started playing Leo Kottke, John Fahey and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young songs. But then he discovered that his father's beloved music had become, somehow, cool. He saw a band with a great name, the Monroe Doctrine, playing in a rathskeller at Lawrence University: "[T]hese were young, hip guys, and they were blowing this college crowd away. It was an epiphany: Here was an acoustic band with more chops than any band I had played in, three-part harmonies, and it was rocking the place.

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Photo Contributed by Chapter16.org / Mark Hembree

"I resolved to find or start a bluegrass band."

And that's how, a few years later, a bass player with wavy red hair nearly to his waist found himself applying and auditioning for a place in the great Bill Monroe's band, as a Blue Grass Boy.

He got the gig, lost the hair and fell into the ride of his life, for good or ill.

This is the bulk of the book, and the ride was often rocky. Hembree was an outsider in most every way. He was a newcomer to an established lineup. He was decades younger than Monroe and also younger than the rest of the Blue Grass Boys. He was also a Northerner among Southerners — no small thing if you don't know bedclothes are sheets and directly means soon.

Hembree surmises at one point he was hired mostly because he wore the same size suit as the previous bass player. Monroe and the boys often treat him that way, and worse: "Becoming a Blue Grass Boy is a nervous business, and the Boys had not made it easy on me. Monroe enjoyed the constant needling, and he was pretty good at it himself, so he egged them on."

The lack of communication in the band seems almost comical, from a reader's remove — Hembree often didn't know when or where the next gig would be or what suit to wear. And then there were Monroe's high sartorial standards for his band — Hembree might find himself needing to buy a Stetson when he was making only $50 a day, the year he started.

"The absurdity of it drove me to tears," he writes. "I was playing with a Grand Ole Opry star, the Father of Bluegrass no less, and I couldn't buy a hat without going homeless. Here I was sweating bullets over a damned cowboy hat."

He just about quit. Instead, he called his dad, who wired the money.

For all the frustrations, the tone of the book is never bitter. Maybe that's because Hembree waited more than three decades to tell his story. Maybe it's because he realizes he was blessed to live this story — playing bluegrass with its very father — despite it sometimes seeming like a curse. Maybe it's just Hembree's nature not to hold a grudge.

But in the end, Hembree seems a satisfied man, and so he should be. He grew up hearing bluegrass sitting on his father's lap. Then he played it professionally with the Father of Bluegrass himself. He survived to tell the tale. It's a good one, filled with humor, heart, hurt and plenty of hard-driving music.

To read an uncut version of this review — and more local book coverage — visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.

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