I Hear A Voice Calling: A Bluegrass Memoir - by Gene Lowinger

University of Illinois Press 9780252076633.
Index, 144 pp., 75 b&w photos, $19.95. (Univ. of Ill. Press, 1325 S. Oak St., Champaign, IL 61820, www.press.uillinois.edu.)

With I Hear A Voice Calling, Gene Lowinger becomes the first fiddler to share the challenges and excitement that came with being one of Bill Monroe’s elect, a Blue Grass Boy. Often introduced by Monroe as the “Jewish boy from New York City,” Gene worked with Bill for only six months, June 1965 through January 1966, before turning in his notice and leaving “an environment in which I felt isolated and alien.” Still, he counts Bill Monroe as his first mentor and clearly loves the man who “showed me that it is okay to dream.”

After leaving Nashville, Gene went back to New York where he studied violin, became an orchestra player, and wrote Bluegrass Fiddling, one of the earliest fiddle instruction books. When a freak accident (a dancer fell on him) made it impossible for him to play, he worked as a computer analyst for ten years before discovering photography. Almost inevitably, this passion led him to photograph Monroe who invited him on stage to play and then admonished him to “practice, shave, and get a haircut!” This fortunate event led Gene (healed from his deteriorating disc and pinched nerve) back to the fiddle and to the “epiphany” that became this book.

Photos of Monroe, most taken in 1993, constitute a major portion of this work. As a Blue Grass Boy, Gene was granted inside access and many of his shots capture the private and playful side of his former boss. There are also some 1960s pictures of Gene with his own band, the New York Ramblers, which included the amazing lineup of David Grisman, Jody Stecher, and Winnie Winston.

As Gene says, working for Bill Monroe was the “beginning of a spiritual journey that would lay out the path for the rest of my life.” He would find other mentors along the way, but what he learned from Monroe, “to be doggedly tenacious in pursuing my vision,” would stand him in good stead no matter what his quest.

Gene joins Bob Black and Butch Robins in providing glimpses into the rarefied world of the Blue Grass Boys. Like his fellow musicians, he too offers personal insights into the enigmatic personality of the man who hired them, the man who said, “I take you boys into the band with me to teach you how to play the music right.” I Hear A Voice Calling is a welcome addition to the growing list of bluegrass memoirs. MHH