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Owensboro is the Scene for a Summer Camp All About Bill Monroe's Mandolin Music

Kevin Willis

On an unseasonably cool Friday afternoon in Owensboro recently, the sounds of an unusual summer camp were being heard in the city's downtown.

About 50 campers from across the country--and some from other countries--were in Daviess County to learn the finer points of one of the great instruments of bluegrass music during the eighth annual Bill Monroe Style Mandolin Camp.

Held at the International Bluegrass Music Museum, the camp is a three-day affair focusing exclusively on the instrument Bill Monroe played as he gained the reputation of being the "Father of Bluegrass Music."

"This is the only camp that I know of that specializes specifically on mandolin style. And it's no other instruments--it's all mandolin players, all Bill Monroe, all the time," says Mike Compton, the camp's director.

Compton is a Mississippi native who now lives in Nashville. He says it's an honor to be a part of a camp that pays tribute to an American musical genius.

Even those who don't consider themselves bluegrass fans are likely familiar with the name Bill Monroe. The Rosine, Kentucky, native gained acclaim for his technical wizardry on the mandolin, inspiring legions of fans throughout the U.S. and beyond.

Compton says the Bill Monroe style of mandolin is a mish-mash of many musical styles.

"Bill took a number of influences, like southeastern fiddle music. His relatives were from Scotland, so he took music from the British Isles. He took some music from the black string-band tradition. There was a little bit of ragtime--he was fond of going down to New Orleans in the early days and hanging out and listening to the people play down there."

"So, it's really a mongrel, if you want to look at it that way," says Compton with a laugh.

Three Days of Bluegrass Bliss

On this day, Compton was preparing to lead a class called "Tremelo--A beginner's look at the primary right hand technique."

Campers could then follow from a selection of classes including "Let's Talk Licks--the glue that sticks lines together", and "Monroe Mando Mash--twin mandolins."

Credit Kevin Willis
Camp director Mike Compton, with artwork depicting Bill Monroe in the background

You know, normal summer camp-type stuff.

In Compton's class on tremolos, a group of six beginner player sit in the area of the bluegrass museum decked out with Hall of Fame plaques honoring the genre's greatest players, including--of course--Bill Monroe. As Compton leads his pupils, a sound emerges that sounds at least a little like what you hear at the symphony, when the orchestra is warming up.

"I actually play guitar. I heard about this camp, so I bought a mandolin last month. So I've only really been playing a month," says Philip Vance, a 17-year-old from Owensboro who was taking Compton's tremelo class.

Vance describes the mandolin strings as being "backwards" from what he's used to when he plays guitar. He says he first encountered the mandolin when he took bluegrass classes at the International Bluegrass Music Museum.

So what makes a teenage guitar player gravitate towards bluegrass?

"Bluegrass music kind of has that dancy, electric feel to it," the Daviess County teenager says. "I like various types of music, but bluegrass music to be sounds very happy. It makes me want to dance."

Vance's words are music to the ears of Richard Brown, the Monroe Mandolin Camp's associate director. He's also a dentist in Cambridge, Massachusetts who travels to Owensboro every year in order to help out. 

Although Brown is nearing his 69th birthday, he can relate to 17-year-old Philip Vance. Like Vance, Brown played guitar as a teenager. When he was 19, people started telling Brown to try the mandolin.

He fell in love with the instrument. He had the opportunity to meet Bill Monroe shortly after that, an encounter that cemented his desire to learn more about the mandolin.

Fifty-nine years later, Brown is still playing--and loving--bluegrass music. Speaking in the lobby of the museum in Owensboro, Brown says he's grateful to see young people like Philip Vance pick up the mandolin.

"Oh, I think it's great! I listened to a comedy record once, and one of the tag lines was: 'The young people of today are the old people of tomorrow.' It's funny, but it's true. You have to have some people coming along to play the music and carry on the tradition."

Willing to Go Halfway Around the World to Get to Summer Camp

Nobody at this mandolin camp was willing to travel farther to help carry on the tradition than Mike Bromley. He's from Nova Scotia, Canada. But since 2009, he has been working in the petroleum industry in Iraq.

Here is the flight path he took to get to the mandolin camp in Owensboro:

*Depart Irbil in northern Iraq

*Land in Istanbul

*Istanbul to Toronto

*Toronto to Calgary

*Calgary to Houston

*Houston to Louisville

"I've been trying to get to this camp for several years, ever since I first heard about it," Bromley says.

For Bromley, the idea of being surrounded by fellow mandolin players was an opportunity too good to pass up.

Playing the instrument in Iraq "is a lonely engagement, let's put it that way," he says.

Not far from where Bromley was speaking sits a museum audio feature that plays a 1947 recording of Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys tearing through the classic tune "Bluegrass Breakdown."

Something makes you think Monroe would be proud to see what was happening in his name over the weekend in Owensboro.

Kevin is the News Director at WKU Public Radio. He has been with the station since 1999, and was previously the Assistant News Director, and also served as local host of Morning Edition.
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