ON BILL MONROE'S PASSING
In Fond Memory of
Bill Monroe 1911-1996
-A Tale of Two Bills-
by Kathe Johnson
[NOTE: Kathe Johnson was holding Old Bill as he passed on.]
Friendship is rare and priceless. To be able to witness one such true friendship as I have done is in my opinion a true blessing. This is the tale of two Bills.
One was quite old - "Old Bill." The other was quite big - "Big Bill." Both Bills were raised in the hills and hollers of the Appalachian Mountains. Both Christians, both musicians, both full of soul and blessed with the knowledge of the ancient tones - they could both play any stringed instrument placed within their grasp, yet both held to and picked a mandolin the most.
Both could sing high. Yes, that high lonesome sound found in bluegrass music and both wrote music that is to be heard until the end of time. They had lots of things in common, these two Bills. They could easily fit in anywhere - but were most content waking in a cabin in the hills to a game rooster's crow.
These two Bills knew one another for many years. They have gone to church and prayed together, played music together, ate fried chicken together, laughed and sat for many hours in one another's company. Sometimes their coversation was of few words and more of a spiritual relationship, enjoying the mere presence of each other.
Old Bill had a few things that Big Bill did not. Old Bill was known worldwide. Only a few had not heard his music. He was tempermental and known to be a stubborn Scotsman. Big Bill was known worldwide too, but only by a few. Although he shared Scottish blood, he was easygoing and lax, forgiving.
Old Bill grew tired and weak - no longer able to grasp his mandolin pick, he became sad and lonesome. He'd hang his head and rest, Big Bill felt his sorrow and with great desire to help his old friend, Big Bill stepped in and began stopping by to play tunes, shoot the breeze, offer chicken-n-dumplins, tell tales of yore and bring joy back into Old Bill's life. That alone seems common enough of friends - not so unordinary or extrordinary. But given that Big Bill lived 200 miles away and yet often came to sit by Old Bill's bedside or chairside and play music, or simply sit, showed his true friendship.
Since Old Bill was known worldwide, one would expect him to have visitors constantly. Visitors to do just as Big Bill did - but seldom did such occur. Old Bill had one son and he came often to visit and was always nice, so don't misunderstand my intent. The son was there for Old Bill, but this is about friendship - you see, friendship isn't expected or demanded, but given freely out of sincere love for another and this is what the two Bills had for one another - TRUE FRIENDSHIP.
Even though Old Bill was tempermental, stubborn, and sometimes even curt, this did not ever phase Big Bill in the least. He loved and tended to Old Bill and would just giggle at any old huffy comment or gesture made by Old Bill.
Big Bill, being an instrument maker, had hand-made a mandolin years before from the exact specifications of Old Bill's cherished F-5 Gibson. Old Bill had played it back in 1973, when it was new and had smiled a half-cocked smile and had made it obvious that he approved of the instrument.
Above: (L-R) Bill Millsaps, Josh Graves and Bill Monroe playing the mandolin when it was new at Cosby, TN in 1973.
Below: The mandolin. It was made as an experiment in 1973 out of scrap wood and sounded suprisingly good. Bill Millsaps played it on stage and on recordings until 1978 when he finished his #2 mandolin that he still plays today. Millsaps made the mandolins for his own use and neither is for sale.
Since Old Bill's tired days, he'd not handled his own Gibson as those in higher authority thought it needed to be locked up and tucked away safe from his old not-so-nimble fingers. Yet he often asked about it and it was evident he longed to hold his old wooden friend and strike a note, or with the grace of God, two or three.
Big Bill didn't hesitate to bring in his hand-made replica. "Now you gotta know this is yours as long as you want it. Sleep with it. If you want to, throw in in the floor. The main thing is, just know it's yours 'til you get out of here."
Old Bill didn't tarry. A gleam from the days gone by lit up in his eyes. He slipped the thin leather strap over his right shoulder. Bothered by his old, not-so-nimble fingers, he fumbled with the neck until he found a pick resting between the first four strings as it always had. He struck the strings slowly and cocked his left ear to listen - a slow long-awaited grin, a bit of a tune, a tear.
I quickly glanced to see the reaction from Big Bill only to find the same. Both friends were truly happy. Old Bill loved to hug the mandolin; it represented his whole life's accomplishments. Big Bill's mandolin certainly had an appreciative and contented owner until Old Bill passed.
Big Bill made his final gesture of friendship about three days before Old Bill went to be with the Lord. He wrote the following poem and faxed it to me to read to Old Bill. Please allow me to share its lines with you.
Backstage at the Opry in Monroe's waning years.
The Last Became the First
Years ago in old Kentucky,
A lady gave birth to her youngest son.
But the first will be last
And the last will be first.
Monroe grew up to be number one.
All his family liked to play music,
They put Bill on the mandolin.
It took him a while
But he developed a style,
And he stood tall among his fellow men.
He wrote true songs from his memories,
Uncle Pen became a world-wide name.
When it came to putting on a show,
The Blue Grass Boys were "ready to go."
They went to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Now Bill is old and tired and withered,
No longer able to pick and grin;
But my friends don't lament
He has peace and content,
As he sits and hugs his mandolin.
When his days down here are over,
When with the angels he must go;
In that land so bright and fair,
I'm sure the brightest tenor there,
Will be that of our beloved Bill Monroe.
The Two Bills Picking & Singing. Above at Monroe's house and below on stage somewhere.