Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation


”When the Bus Broke Down:” PLAYING WITH BILL MONROE

Most professional musicians from a certain era (mine) have all kinds of stories about what happened “when the bus broke down,” i.e., when some of the band didn’t show up for the gig. Playing a set with Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, is one of mine.

May 17, 1963 (I Googled it): the weeklong booking of Bill Monroe and Doc Watson as ostensibly different acts at the Ash Grove, LA’s legendary folk and roots music venue, started off with a whimper. Bill Monroe had arrived for his first night’s performance, but he’d come a different way from the rest of the band, probably by air. As always, the Bluegrass Boys traveled by bus.

But the bus broke down somewhere nearer California than Tennessee, though still too far away to get the band to the club in time for their opening night’s first set. Ed Pearl, the Ash Grove’s owner, figured Doc could certainly play with Bill Monroe until the rest of the Bluegrass Boys arrived, even if that wasn’t until the next night. Which, in fact, it turned out to be, serendipitously triggering a week of Bill Monroe-Doc Watson performances that became legends in the world of what I call American Roots Music. I don’t know if it was Ed’s secret intention to-uh oh, hold on, there, Sparky, I’m getting ahead of myself.

It was a perfect solution, Doc filling in for the rest of Bill’s band, except for one thing: Doc hadn’t gotten to the club yet, and Bill was scheduled to go on in half an hour. Remember, we’re talking about the days before cell phones,  we had no way to get in touch with Doc to see where he was and when he might get there.

This drama was playing out in the club’s dressing room, a shabby little slot in a wall off the lobby where everybody but the audience hung out in-between sets or whenever. I was a whenever that night, and as the minutes ticked by and still no Doc Watson, the possibility that I might be Bill Monroe’s guitarist for a minute was writing its siren song in my head and heart. This is something every folk-revival Bluegrass wannabe wanted to be. I began thinking terrible things about what could have happened to Doc on the way to the club. Thinking, but not wishing. Karma’s way too big in music to risk fucking with it.

But then, in a rare moment of humanity, Ed Pearl told me to suit up, formally introduced me to Bill (“Bill, this is Country Al, which is a joke, because he’s Jewish and he comes from this neighborhood and I doubt if he’s ever been to the country in his life. But he probably knows your repertoire.”)

Ed was right, of course; all us acolytes were totally on top of the Bluegrass canon, especially the songs and instrumentals Bill Monroe did. If you weren’t, it would be like saying you went to a Kingston Trio concert. “Pleased to meet you, Alford,” Bill said. “Son, do you know Footprints in the Snow?”

“God, Bill, why don’t you ask me if I know the Star Spangled banner?” I thought as I scrambled to get my guitar tuned up to his mandolin. But “Key of E?” is what I actually said.

“Some folks like the summertime, when they can walk about,” the first line of the song, was the next thing to come out of his mouth, and well before I could even get a capo on. (Of course you know I haven’t used one of those in decades, it’s matter of pride; but hardly anybody ever tried to play Bluegrass guitar in anything but “white folks’ keys,” i.e., G, C and D). (BTW, “Alford” was what he called me the rest of the night, starting with my introduction a few minutes later to the audience and ending with his signature on a photograph of himself, which was also how he paid me. Was “To Alford, Bill Monroe” worth more than the $15 or $20 he probably paid the real Bluegrass Boys? You think? Of course I framed the photo, and even tho’ I thought of trying to change A-l-f-o-r-d to A-l-l-a-n, it still says “Alford.”)

We made up a set list of things we could do without the rest of the band, notably the banjo player. He’d ask me if I knew such and such a song or instrumental, and I’d go the right key and play or hum a few bars until he decided I knew the piece, and we’d move on to the next candidate. We ended up with about ten or twelve songs and I asked him if he wanted to have an encore song.

“Well, you know how that works, Alford,” he said, “we just play the last tune again, but twice as fast.” How could I have forgotten?

I’d like to tell you I kept the set list all these years, but I didn’t. And other than starting with, I’m pretty sure, Rocky Road Blues and ending with-I know for sure because my left hand went into spasm on the encore-a blindingly fast Rawhide, the set itself was a blur. And, oh, yes, Footprints in the Snow. I absolutely remember we did that, because when we got to the chorus, “I traced her little footprints in the snow…”, Bill caught my eye and motioned me up to the mike with his head. So, yes, I sang with Bill Monroe.

If you want to know what it was like to be on stage with Mr. Bluegrass, it gave “wind beneath my wings” new meaning, at least for me. The way he dug licks and back-beats out of a pretty small instrument, standing there brace-legged at the mike, punching tight, bluesy vocals like he invented the style, which he did, you knew you couldn’t screw up unless you tried really hard. That’s not a whole band under me, I thought, it’s just one man. But during that half-hour-plus, I knew who owned the idiom someone once called “folk music in overdrive”, in the same way you sometimes knew Michael Jordan owned basketball, knowhuttamean?

Two more things do I remember about that night:

Doc had, in fact, made it to the club in time to back up Bill, which he did for the rest of the night after my set o’ glory. But to my everlasting gratitude he must have sensed what it meant to me to play that set because he found some way to bow out gracefully, if temporarily, something about changing a string or something, I don’t remember. Soon after that I became his West Coast lead boy, and he became a close friend I still talk to today.

The second thing is that when we got back into the dressing room after the set, Bill asked me how I’d feel about playing with him some more, like, on the road and everything. Fortunately, in a weird way because I was just about to plats (Yid.: Burst!), Ed Pearl came into the crowded little room and ordered me to help the kitchen guy, Roger, serve some iced frappés or something to complaining customers before he pulled a knife on them, something he did more often than he should have.

Without a doubt, Ed did me a favor, because I was going to school then and had to stay in to keep my IIs Student Deferment and not go to Nam. Also, who knows what might have happened if I’d had a chance to say yes, and Bill’d made good on his offer, and I’d gone on the road with him and gotten stuck in some awful hellhole of a trailer town “when the bus broke down” and he’d gone on ahead to some other Ash Grove in some other huge, metropolitan center, with…well, you know the drill. So, I guess I’m glad I didn’t.

But you’d think they’d make those busses a little more reliable, wouldn’t you?

One-liner Notes:

“I’d really like to bonk that Drummer; how often do you hear a Rock ‘n Roll bass player say that?”  …Skip Battin, the first time he saw the Carpenters.

  1. Albert Says:

    Great story. You should have given the road of try. At least for a couple of weeks. Could always rush back to school. Nam was a sham and a shame.

  2. Ann Ray Says:

    Sometime you’ll come “down home” with us and see where your ol’ buddy Bill was from. I loved your anecdote–wish we could have been there that night.

  3. Scott Hambly Says:

    Al, I always wanted to know what happened that time. I was in Washington state, doing some touring around Olympia at Evergreen State College and surrounding community colleges (thanks to pickin’ buddy, Tom Foote, member of the faculty at ESC) and missed this scene.

    Your writing vividly described the excitement of the moment, a dream come true. All those hours woodshedding with Bill’s records and tapes, as well as our rehearsals and shows with the Ridgerunners and Redwood Canyon Ramblers repertoire, put you in good stead.

    Your pickin’ pal, Scott

  4. Jason Off Says:

    Classic, but if he wanted to call me Oddford, I’d be okay with that, Bill Keith became Bradford Keith for his whole stint with the GSBs.. still, I get it.

    actually found this while looking for info on Scott Hambly, and Al, sure good to see you online, i seem to recall you had a prevous website under Alross.com or the like.


Leave a Reply