“He bestrode the world like a colossus.” Those words used by Shakespeare to describe Julius Caesar could also have been applied to the late, great mandolin virtuoso Bill Monroe. Physically imposing, a bush league baseball player and former factory worker who made his band members work on his farm between gigs, Monroe was creating and constantly honing a certain sound: the high lonesome strains of what he called bluegrass, now so familiar that most Americans probably believe it came over on the Mayflower.
Bill assumed that no one outside his region of the
South would be drawn to the high lonesome sound, but Gene Lowinger was a notable exception, causing Monroe great wonderment. Lowinger was a Yankee and a Jew, two aspects that made him an anomaly, but he was a fiddler, one of the better instrumentalists of his time, and for that Monroe respected him. Respected him enough to make him a genuine Bluegrass Boy who traveled extensively with Monroe and when not officially a band member anymore, was still invited up on stage to play a few tunes with Monroe’s band, a singular honor.
Lowinger is also a photographer and a memoirist who has put his talents in those areas together to bring back some memories of Monroe and others during the 1960s' heyday when Lowinger was part of the band
- and later, when Monroe was old and, one would have to say, rather frail in appearance compared to the power of his glory days. Most people choose to remember Bill in his prime, when he was writing songs and tunes, good ones, almost daily, clogging while he picked his mandolin and singing in a high-pitched, almost whining style that was recognized as the bluegrass benchmark. But Lowinger saw him in his waning years, too, and shares intimate glimpses of Monroe at home in Goodletsville, Tennessee, and on one of his last major tours. Peripheral to the main subject and also captured by Lowinger’s camera are such luminaries of the traditional music genre as Doc Watson, J.D. Crowe, Flatt and Scruggs, and two other outlanders who, like Lowinger, bent bluegrass every which way: Peter Rowan and David Grisman. The photos are black and white, evoking a sense of an earlier, simpler time.
Monroe liked Lowinger and Lowinger adulated Monroe, not just as a unique musician and progenitor of a unique genre but as a teacher and mentor whose talent was a driving force behind Lowinger’s eventual, though lesser, successes. Lowinger states that bluegrass music “was definitely not the music I heard growing up…yet the first time I heard it, I was deeply moved. And the first time I saw Bill Monroe perform, my creative vision started to become clearer.” It is that vision that made this book possible, framing a master craftsman in the camera’s eye and tracing in broad strokes the history of his rise to the pinnacle of popularity.