Rich pickin's: Bluegrass legend provides ample fodder for biography

Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- Richard Smith, a program secretary in ecology and evolutionary biology, was hanging out at a jam session of folk musicians one night in 1994. During a lull in the music, Richard Carlin, the head of a small publishing company, turned to him and said, "Why don't you write a book for me about bluegrass?"




At the time, Smith was a freelance writer who frequently penned articles about bluegrass music. He took up the invitation, and "Bluegrass: An Informal Guide" was published in 1995.

A year later Smith was returning home from a bluegrass gig when he learned that the father of the genre, Bill Monroe, whom he had interviewed many times, had just died at the age of 84. Smith realized Monroe would be an ideal candidate for a major biography. "There had only been one very good but very small biography of Monroe, written back in 1970," Smith said. With one bluegrass title under his belt and a second book, about the town of Princeton, soon to be published, Smith felt confident that he was the man for the job.

He was right. Smith's biography of bluegrass legend Bill Monroe was just named to the "New & Noteworthy Paperbacks" list in The New York Times Book Review. "Can't You Hear Me Callin': The Life of Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass" was published last year in hardcover by Little, Brown, a major New York publishing house. It has been reviewed in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post and several other papers. It also has won two awards for books about music.

Smith attributes the success of the book, which he said has sold 15,000 hardcover copies so far, to the importance of his subject. "Bill Monroe truly is a giant of American popular music," he said. "He had a profound influence not only as the father of bluegrass and arguably the only person to invent an entire genre of music, but also as a major figure in early country music and modern country music. He was a leading figure in the folk music revival of the 1960s, and he had a direct influence on rock 'n' roll."


Monroe combined elements of the square dance fiddle tunes, traditional ballads and African-American blues he heard during his 1920s childhood in Rosine, Ky., with his powerful high tenor voice and his mandolin playing to create a new musical genre that came to be known as bluegrass. "It was this very lively and uptempo and engaging music that also had a lot of what Bill Monroe would call 'lonesomeness' in it," Smith said.

Smith has been a bluegrass fan since he was a teenager living in Montgomery Township in the '60s, when he took up the guitar and mandolin as a hobby. By college he was spending his summers playing gigs with a band. After graduating from Emerson College he became a journalist, keeping up with his passion for music by writing for publications like Bluegrass Unlimited. He also wrote a book called "Images of America: Princeton," part of a series of paperback picture histories about historic towns. The book has a number of archival photographs of the University from the 19th century, as well as a chapter on famous Princetonians that profiles Woodrow Wilson and Albert Einstein.

When Smith decided to try to sell a book proposal about Bill Monroe, he called an old friend, Peter Goldsmith, who is a former director of studies at Mathey College and the author of a book on music figure Moe Asch. Goldsmith helped Smith get in touch with a literary agent who was interested in music biographies, Chris Calhoun at Sterling Lord Literistic. Calhoun pitched the book to Michael Pietsch, vice president and publisher of Little, Brown, who made an offer.

After completing the book, which took three years to research and write, Smith decided it was time to give up the uncertainty of a freelance writing career. In March 2000 he started working in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. As the undergraduate and graduate program secretary, Smith is responsible for maintaining student files, coordinating department gatherings and handling inquiries from prospective students. Last summer he squeezed in a book tour to Nashville, New York and Boston using his vacation days.

Smith has more media appearances lined up in conjunction with last month's release of the paperback edition. For his next book, he is planning to write about a scientific field expedition (he isn't saying which one), focusing on what drives the people who go on such trips.

Smith interviewed more than 120 people for "Can't You Hear Me Callin'," and reviewers have praised the book for its thoroughness as well as its knowledgeable and honest account of Monroe's life. "Mr. Smith has gone through small-town records, farm ledgers, interview transcripts, bootleg recordings and legal documents; he has interviewed not only Monroe's musicians but also his ex-girlfriends," wrote Jon Pareles in The New York Times. "It is a meticulously researched and footnoted biography, intent on straightening out chronologies and pinning down apocryphal stories. It also looks into Monroe's music, connecting songs to the people and landscapes that inspired them and explaining, without getting too technical, Monroe's innovations and his evolution."

Producing a book, Smith said, requires a plethora of talents that go beyond just being a skilled writer. "You have to be your own secretary and your own travel agent," he said. "You have to be part psychologist and part private detective."


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