Fred Bartenstein’s history with Bluegrass goes back to the late-1960’s when he became heavily involved with the beginning of Bluegrass festivals and the fan press with Muleskinner News. His most new book, Bluegrass Bluesman: A Memoir, focuses on Dobro legend “Uncle” Josh Graves. Today he tells us a little more about the book and his history with the music.
Music Tomes: Bluegrass Bluesman is compiled from three different sources and it seems that all were happy to share that information. This, to me, illustrated perfectly the bluegrass community. Do you have a sense of why these people felt it important to get the information out instead of withholding it with a “One day, I’ll publish it” attitude?
Fred Bartenstein: Barry Willis did eight days of interviews with Josh Graves in 1994. He and his friend Mike Dow were authorized by Josh to prepare his biography. Willis gave the transcripts to me in 2008, after Graves’s death in 2006, when it became clear that he and Dow weren’t going to complete the project. Bobby Wolfe published his 1990 interview with Josh in Bluegrass Unlimited; both he and BU authorized me to use that material. Stacey Phillips published his 1993 interview with Josh in Mel Bay Publications’ 2002 Complete Dobro Player; both he and Mel Bay authorized me to use that material. Twenty-four of Josh’s contemporaries and disciples contributed their written testimony. A number of photographers, museums, and collectors contributed use of historic photographs, and noted experts graciously reviewed drafts and made suggestions. The bluegrass community is great about sharing and I’m grateful to my many collaborators. We all know that there’s no big money to be made in bluegrass, so we mainly do it out of love and respect for the music and pioneering artists.
MT: You served as editor of Muleskinner News, a fanzine/magazine in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. How did you get involved with that?
FB: When I was 14 I attended the very first bluegrass festival, held in 1965 near Roanoke, Virginia. I became acquainted with the promoter, Bluegrass Hall of Fame member Carlton Haney (1928-2011). In 1967 I was drafted to MC the festival stage when the announcer was called away for a family emergency. Haney liked my work and used me on a number of his bluegrass and country shows. I worked for him during the summers of 1969-1974, my college years. In 1969 we started Muleskinner News and I edited it until January of 1975, when I started a “day job” in Dayton, Ohio. I’m gratified that people continue to quote and highly regard Muleskinner News, which published in its day a lot of important material on bluegrass music history.
MT: The sense of community extends to another project on your Web site, Bluegrass Generations. Tell us a little bit about that project and its origins.
FB: In 2005, Western Kentucky University hosted the first-ever academic conference on bluegrass music. For that event, I decided to compile and analyze biographical information on 680 bluegrass and pre-bluegrass recording artists, looking for interesting patterns that would inform my thinking and that of others about the history of bluegrass. My research is summarized at http://www.fredbartenstein.com/bluegen.html , including downloadable tables of all the data for use by anyone. I’ve worked on a publishable paper on the Bluegrass Generations research, but haven’t yet found a place to publish it.
FB: I wrote a number of the biographies of Bluegrass Hall of Fame members for the International Bluegrass Music Museum website. I think it would be good to compile the 50-some profiles into a book with great photographs, and the Museum and I are working on putting that project together.
MT: Can you recommend some of your favorite music tomes?
FB: Bluegrass: A History by Neil Rosenberg (Illinois, 1985, rev. 2005), The Bluegrass Reader, edited by Thomas Goldsmith (Illinois, 2004), Meeting Jimmie Rodgers by Barry Mazor (Oxford, 2009), Can’t You Hear Me Callin': The Life of Bill Monroe by Richard D. Smith (Little, Brown, 2000), Pressing On: The Roni Stoneman Story, as told to Ellen Wright (Illinois, 2007)