BLUEGRASS BLUESMAN: JOSH GRAVES, A MEMOIR

BLUEGRASS BLUESMAN: JOSH GRAVES, A MEMOIR—EDITED BY FRED BARTENSTEIN—University of Illinois Press 9780252078644. Foreword by Neil Rosenberg, 133 pp., $21.95. (Univ. Of Illinois Press, Chicago Distribution Ctr., 11030 S. Langley Ave., Chicago, IL 60628, press.uillinois.edu.)

Yet another must-read book from the University of Illinois Press. Readers of this magazine don’t need to be reminded of the importance of Josh Graves to the history of bluegrass. He is singularly responsible for the acceptance and early development of the resonator guitar in bluegrass music, but Uncle Josh was also a great singer, songwriter, bass player, and comedian. This memoir, compiled and edited from various sources by renowned bluegrass historian Fred Bartenstein with a foreword by Neil Rosenberg and additional chapter introductions by Thomas Goldsmith, is a welcome and compelling look at the life of Josh Graves.

The text comes from recordings of Josh first conducted by Barry Willis in 1994. The intent was for Willis to write an “as told to” autobiography of Graves, but the project was never completed. In 2008, two years after Graves’ death, Willis contacted Bartenstein to see if he might be interested in doing something with the transcript. Using additional interviews of Josh conducted by Bobby Wolfe in 1990 and Stacy Phillips in 1993, Fred assembled and edited the transcripts into a coherent memoir tracing Josh’s life from his youth in Tellico Plains, Tenn., through his work with Kenny Baker in the ’80s and ’90s.

There are a lot of great stories in this collection as well as straight talk about life as a sideman in the country and bluegrass bands of the ’40s through the ’60s. Josh had honest opinions and didn’t pull punches (especially in regard to his leaving Lester Flatt to play with the Earl Scruggs Revue). There are many intriguing quotes here, including, “The Callahan Brothers, to me, was the first ones that ever did bluegrass music, really.”

The voice of Josh Graves is authentic and as close to a first-person narrative of the early days of bluegrass that we have. It also goes into how important the blues were in Josh’s musical life—possibly as important as bluegrass. He became a fan and a friend of blues giant Lightning Hopkins.

A work of love and scholarship from Fred Bartenstein that well deserves its place among the best of the University of Illinois publications on bluegrass. Highly recommended.CVS

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