Gibson F-5 # 73994 signed by Lloyd Loar July 9, 1923: Mon
Gibson F-5 #73994 was the bench mate to the most famous mandolin of all time, Gibson F-5 #73987, purchased by Bill Monroe in a Florida barbershop in the early 1940s and used throughout his career. Mr. Monroe became an American music icon and is credited with creating a music genre called "Bluegrass". Monroe played this mandolin all over the world from humble school houses and barn dances to command performances for Presidents and royalty. F-5 # 73987 is in the country music hall of fame and housed under glass for perusal of the curious, as it shows extreme wear and even abuse associated with the remarkable stories of Monroe's life and career. F-5 #73994 has features and appointments similar to # 73987, including the rare positioning of the black stripe in the body binding on the side instead of the top. These "side-bound" mandolins are few and far between and are heavily associated with the Monroe look and sound. Unlike Mr. Monroe's highly worn F-5, #73994 is in perfect original condition and gives us a precious insight into what Mr. Monroe must have encountered in that barbershop so long ago, and understanding as to why he chose to spend the rest of his life devoted to this mandolin and its music.
Charlie and Bill Monroe were idols in Piedmont, North Carolina, and theirs was some of the first recorded music I ever heard. In the late 1930s they performed live on WPTF radio in Raleigh and from there they toured extensively throughout the Carolinas. Their rough and tumble lifestyle and fast paced traditional music--from ballads to heart songs to gospel--made them the toast of the farm based population, which included my family. My grandfather saw them live, alternating sets with a "B" western movie starring Bob Steele at the old Ramseur theatre. My uncle and aunt, whose farm I stayed at as a child, played their music on a 78 rpm record player. Bill and Charlie broke up (along with the back of Charlie's guitar, or so the story goes) and Bill started his on band, "The Bluegrass Boys," kicking the music up into even faster tempos and higher pitches. THIS was the music that captivated me and drew me away from the laid back Piedmont country music of my father and other kinfolk and friends. At the age of 9, I saw Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys live and my world was changed forever. I witnessed the amazing power, grace and teamwork of the Bluegrass Boys; from the moment of their introduction, they ran to the stage and began weaving around the single mic; seeing the dazzling mandolin-driven instrumental fireworks in person inspired me like no record ever could...and the stage presence and vocal prowess of Bill Monroe was a force to be reckoned with. Those who saw Monroe during his later phase got no hint of the level of pitch control, dynamic range and sheer power his voice was capable of in these live, primitive PA settings during the prime of his career.
Thus, I became a young man of constant pleadings, to my overworked parents, asking them to take me to see Monroe whenever he came within driving range of our home. There is even a story my Mother tells of me heading out with my lunch in a bandana, attempting to walk from North Carolina to Bean Blossom, Indiana to see Bill Monroe. During one of these outings, I finally had the nerve to walk up to Monroe. He liked kids. After many such encounters, he began to recognize me and allowed me to stand quietly by him as he greeted fans, or in the dressing room while the band warmed up. On several occasions he let me play his mandolin. Once, he took me on the bus and slowly read a 97 page biography & discography I had written on his life for a high school term paper.
The mandolin I played during these days was a 1915 or 16 Gibson F-2 that had formerly belonged to Karl Davis of the Cumberland Ridge Runners. Monroe recognized the mandolin. It reminded him of his and Charlie's first musical gig which was as dancers for the WLS Jamboree In Chicago. The house band was the Cumberland Ridge Runners, a wonderful old time group that excelled at a variety of music and entertainment, and in retrospect I realized what an influence they were to the development of the Bluegrass Boys formula. Karl Davis played this very mandolin to accompany Bill and Charlie as they danced with their girlfriends on the popular live radio show. One day, back stage at the Lake Norman music hall, I was hanging out with Monroe with my F-2. Jimmy Martin and Allen Munde were there clowning around and we all know how Jimmy likes a good sounding oval hole F model, and they were passing the mandolin around admiring the tone. After a while, Monroe handed the mandolin back to ME and indicated that I should play something. I did not hesitate: "Dusty Miller." This was a bold choice. It was the lead-off tour-de-force on Monroe's latest recording at that time, a blazing rendition, and I imitated it to the best of my ability. It was a bold choice. However, I was confident. I had spent many hours slowing down the record, analyzing each finger position and pick stroke, and little by little, getting it up to speed. The entire time I played, Monroe looked the other way. I finished. Silence. Then Monroe turned to me and said, "let me see that mandolin." Then he began to play, a lilting cross shuffle stroke I had never imagined, a whole new Dusty Miller, something archaic and old world. I was stunned. Had I learned it wrong? Monroe did not say a thing, he just handed me back my mandolin. That night, I sat by our camp fire and studied up on what I had just heard. It was quite a challenge, but by sun rise, I had learned "Dusty Miller" in this new and wonderful way.
The next day, Monroe took the stage for his afternoon show. I had been allowed in the dressing room, listening as the Bluegrass Boys warmed up, and stood in the wings by the stage as they began their concert. About mid way through, Monroe announced that they were going to play an instrumental. (Now recently, someone asked me if I had known Monroe well enough for him to call me by name. I said of course--my name was "hey, boy!") Monroe continued: ...and there's a boy whose gonna come up here and play this number with me. Come on up here boy!" And he pointed over to me. I nearly fell over. I looked around to see who he was talking to, and someone said, "he means you! Go on up there!" So I took out the old Cumberland Ridge Runners mandolin and ran to the mic. Monroe says, "we're gonna play an old timer, the Dusty Miller. Kick it off there boy." So I raised my mandolin to the mic and started playing like I had learned in my all night vigil by the campfire. After a few bars, Monroe lifted his mighty axe and began playing: exactly like on his new record, the first version that I had spent the night UNlearning, the melody I had worked so hard to discard! I continued to play the campfire vigil version, and you know what? They blended together beautifully. Not in the way of two instruments playing the same melody in harmony a third apart, but in a counter point, where one instrument makes a statement and the other dances around it. The thrill of that experience and the realization of what I learned in that moment of inspiration will stay with me for my entire life.
And so, what should I play, when handed a side bound July 9 Gibson F-5 signed and numbered just seven digits after Bill Monroe's Loar, the most famous mandolin of all time? Why "the Dusty Miller" of course. The first time through is in the style learned from Monroe's record (Bluegrass Time album, recorded around 1967), the second time the campfire vigil version and the third time a mix of the two. Thank you Bill, you are the Master from which the F-5 fountain still flows!