By Aaron Keith Harris
If you made a Mt. Rushmore for bluegrass music instrumentalists, there would have to be six faces—not five as Bill Monroe originally intended—and that sixth face would have to be the smiling visage of Josh Graves. Burkett Howard Graves, known professionally as “Buck” or “Uncle Josh,” was born in Tellico Plains, Tennessee (Monroe County, oddly enough) in 1927 and popularized the use of the Dobro, or resonator guitar, in bluegrass music.
Others, including yodeler Cliff Carlisle and his Hawaiian steel guitar and Bashful Brother Oswald, who played Dobro with Roy Acuff, had made the slide guitar sound part of country music, but when Monroe’s new brand of music called bluegrass branched off just after World War II, the Kentucky bandleader brought with him only guitar, upright bass, fiddle, and his own rapid-fire mandolin. Joined with Earl Scruggs three-finger banjo style, the new style became a separate and distinct form of country music.
In a series of recorded interviews that Fred Bartenstein has shaped into Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir, Josh Graves tells us how his Dobro playing was able to cut in and become a partner in what quickly became a highly stylized dance. First with Mac Wiseman and, starting in 1955 with Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys, Graves’ tone-rich, loud Dobro sound—the right hand influenced by Scruggs’ picking style, the left hand by Lightnin’ Hopkins and other black blues players—cut through the other noise to become an accepted part of a music played by hard-headed men whose main innovation was to tweak and then codify tradition.
At 176 pages (including a foreword from Neil Rosenberg, an introduction from Fred Bartenstein, and 16 pages containing 41 great black and white photographs) Bluegrass Bluesman is a slim volume, but that’s one of its virtues. The effect is that of spending a a day on the bus with a genial host who has lots of great stories not only about himself, but of many of the founders of one of America’s unique contributions to world music. Some of portraits are less-then-flattering, but there’s nothing vindictive or gratuitous, just the confirmation that our musical heroes are people too, and that their foibles and faults sometimes had important effects on the music just as their incredible talents did.
About 20 pages are dedicated to short tributes and remembrances from well-known colleagues, friends, and acolytes, and there’s a short appendix from Bobby Wolfe about Graves’ best-known guitars that will be of great interest to many.
Bluegrass Bluesman belongs with Can’t You Hear Me Callin’: The Life of Bill Monroe, Traveling the High Way Home: Ralph Stanley and the World of Traditional Bluegrass Music, and Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story as essential portraits of musicians essential to the history of bluegrass music.