Meeting Bill Monroe
Bluegrass fairy tales couldn’t come any better than this. In the early 80s, Jens Kruger happened to meet, to play with, and to learn from the father of bluegrass music. It was an experience that set him on the musical path that he continues to travel today.
by Jens Kruger, published in Bluegrass Unlimited, Sept 2011
In may of 1982 I went to America with Christa, and we bought a car in Long Island and drove to the Bean Blossom Festival in Brown Co. Indiana. It was Bill Monroe’s festival, and at the time it was one of the biggest bluegrass festivals in the country. It lasted for something like 10 days, lots of bands, thousands of people.
As we drove into the place, we had the windows open on our Plymouth Duster, and I heard music coming from the stage, and that was the first time I ever heard live bluegrass at a bluegrass festival. I was 19 at the time. Christa saw Bill Monroe, and she asked if I had seen him, and I hadn’t because I’d been spending my time in the parking lot jamming. And she said, well, you’ve got to see him, he’s amazing.
So, the next day, I went to see Bill Monroe, and it was absolutely mesmerizing. Everybody played great music, but there was something about Bill Monroe that really struck me. I had some of his albums, but I was never as fascinated as I was when I saw the man on stage. There was something about him, the charisma, the personality.
After the show, I just went backstage because I had the urge to meet him. When he walked off—it was a little wooden stage, a covered stage—I went to him and said, “I want to thank you for your music.” And he just shook my hand and he looked me in the eye and he said, “Well, you’re going to be playing with me tomorrow.”
And I said, “What?” He said, “yeah, be here when we play tomorrow” and then just turned around and walked off. My English wasn’t that good at the time, so I stood there thinking that maybe I didn’t understand him right. I went to Christa told her that I had met Bill Monroe and that, actually, he had invited me to play with him tomorrow, and Christa said, well, he doesn’t even know you play. Which was true. I didn’t have my banjo with me or anything, and all I had done was thank him. So Christa said, “Ah, you’re out of your mind.”
But the next morning I got up and put on the best clothes I had, took my banjo, and walked to the back of the stage and sort of hung around. And here comes Bill Monroe in his blue Cadillac—the one that Jimmy Martin had given him I believe—and he got out, spotted me and said, “Come over here boy!” So I went over there and he said, “Wait here until I call you up.”
So I stood there, still not knowing what was going on, but I got my banjo out, tuned it. I didn’t know what I was going to be playing with him or anything, and during the set, all of a sudden, he says, “We’ve got this banjo player here. Please make him welcome.” I went up on stage and he asked me my name, turned and introduced me, and then said, “OK, so what are you going to play for us?” And I said, “How about ‘Train 45’” and he said, “Great! OK, let’s go.”
I stood beside Kenny Baker, and for the first time in my life I played with a good bluegrass band. In Europe we had a band called Rocky Road and we had a record contract, so I had been playing bluegrass and it was a part of my life, but this was an entirely different experience. I started playing “Train 45” and it felt like I was in a vice grip. The timing was so tight, and the sound was so good, I felt like I could just fly anywhere and play anything. It felt absolutely amazing. And the people were generous, they gave me a standing ovation. It was really fast, and I was nervous as well, but when that was done Bill Monroe said, “Give us another one,” and I played “Orange Blossom Special.”
After the show he came to me and said, “What are you doing, boy?” and I told him I wanted to go to California. I don’t remember why, but I had it in my head that we’d go to California. And he said, “well, I’m playing a festival down in Kentucky, will you come too?” And I said, well, I want to go to California. But then after I asked some people where the festival was in Kentucky, and I said to Christa, “Well, why don’t we go there?”
I didn’t think that he wanted me to play with him again. But we traveled down there and I was playing in the parking lot of the festival when someone came running up and asked if I was the guy from Switzerland. I said I was and he says, “Bill Monroe is calling you from the stage!” So I run over and Bill Monroe asked me to come up on stage to play a couple of numbers. It was just such a great experience to play with him again.
After he said, “if you ever come to Nashville, give me a call.” Then as we drove down Interstate 40 our car started to break down. It’s like it started to disintegrate. The transmission went, and everything started to fall apart, and we ended up at the campground of Opryland. And since he had said that if I’m ever in Nashville I should call him, I called Bill’s number thinking he was probably on tour. But, he answered the phone. You know, “Hi. It’s Bill Monroe.” I told him we were in town, and he said that he was at the Station Inn that night and said I should come over. Jerry Douglas was there that night, and Norman and Nancy Blake. I walk in with my banjo and told them Bill Monroe had invited me, and they told me to go backstage. I did, and there he was. I played a few numbers, had a great time. He was just the nicest guy.
After the show he asked me where we were staying, and I told him we were at the campground. He said, “nah, come over to my house.” The next morning we went to his farm and he was out working, feeding the chickens with his overalls on. He had about 80 horses and maybe 200 cattle on the farm and a foreman there that did work for him. It was really out in the country, a beautiful place. We got out of the car and he invited us in for breakfast. There we were, on Bill Monroe’s farm, the sun coming up, eating breakfast. He cooked grits and biscuits and gravy, bacon and eggs. It was the first time in my life that I had a real southern breakfast.
He made me work on the farm. After breakfast we went dipping dogs. He had about 50 dogs on his property and they had to be dipped in pesticide, for the fleas or whatever. And he’d grab the dogs by anything he could get a hold of, and they’d howl and try to bite him, so he’d just grab them and dip them. That’s what we did for the next few hours.
He had a house on his property that had a practice room on the second floor, a bedroom on the first, and he said we could stay there as long as we liked. In the evenings we’d be sitting in his kitchen, playing music, eating ice cream, and we had a great time.
One day we went to pick up him up and he said “I’ve got to ask Christa something.” He turns to her and asks, “Can Jens play with me tomorrow at the Grand Ol Opry?” At first she didn’t understand him, so he had to ask again. Once she understood what he was asking she of course said, “Yes!”
The next day I went there and went backstage with him. I didn’t have a suit and I had to wear a suit. He said, well, there’s a closet full of old bluegrass boy suits, find one that fits you. I found one. The pants were a little to short—I think it belonged to one of his bus drivers or something—but he said it looked fine. In those days they wore the white hats with feathers in front, and he had an extra one so he gave me one to wear. I put it on my head, and my hair was sticking out from beneath the hat in the front. He turns to Kenny Baker and says, “Show the boy how to wear a hat!” So Kenny Baker takes it off and sweeps my hair back, puts it back on and says “We;’re not looking like John Denver around here!” That was the 17th of July 1982 and Bill Monroe introduced me as the fist European instrumentalist to perform at the Grand Ol Opry.
Dolly Parton was there, Chet Atkins. Everybody. I played Orange Blossom Special and then he did a little interview with him. That night we went home and I remembered something. I remembered, a few years back, when Lester Flatt passed away and the French Swiss TV station had a report on bluegrass music. During the report there were pictures of Lester Flatt playing with Bill Monroe at the Grand Ol Opry. That was the first time I had heard of it. Uwe and I would talk about our dreams, and after that, I would always say that it was my dream to play onstage at the Grand Ol Opry. He would say, “It is impossible, but it’s a good dream.” In that evening when I drove home, I realised that I’d just done it.
We talked a lot about music that summer, how to approach music, and that’s where I realized I had never met a person like him, a person who talked about music in that way. I had only known people who had talked about specifics, but I had never met anybody who said that you’ve got to listen to yourself, that you’ve got to listen to what you like and to what your dreams are. He said, “You know enough about the banjo to play anything, you’ve listened enough to the outside, now you’ve got to listen to the inside.”
He asked me what I wanted to do in life, and I said that I wanted to be a bluegrass musician. He said, “You can’t. You’re not from Kentucky, and you’re not me, and I’ve already done it.” He told me to make my own music.
It was then that I understood why Bill Monroe had that charisma. It was because he was a creator. He was not only a musician, he was also a visionary. He wasn’t the cleanest mandolin player in the world, or the cleanest singer. But he had a vision. And because of that vision, there was just more there. And that was the greatest music lesson I ever got. You can learn technique, but you can only get a glimpse of what creativity is unless you are around someone who has it.
We stayed there for about 8 weeks. At that time Bill Monroe was in his early 70s . He’d been playing a long time. Still, at night I would sit out with Christa and we could hear him on his porch on the other side of the creek, in the dark, playing mandolin. He’d come up with all these beautiful instrumentals and tunes, and he’d play all night. I was just fascinated to be around somebody like that.