Being brought into focus by Bill Monroe

Randall Franks

As I stepped on the blue bus, I wondered whether I could measure up to the task ahead. I had spent much of the last decade learning to play the fiddle and violin. I listened to every record and learned hundreds of fiddle licks that helped me take these steps. I had already performed for the Grand Ole Opry. Nevertheless, despite years of performing and endless hours of preparation, still in my teens, I was scared. Already, I had the distinct honor of being a regular show guest of one of music’s greatest innovators, the Father of Bluegrass music, Bill Monroe. But now instead of just walking out on stage, shining in his accolades of my talent, the duties of carrying long-time fiddler Kenny Baker’s parts fell on my shoulders. While I had listened to the recordings, I knew that the dynamic of Mr. Monroe’s stage show was a bit different than those sounds emanating from the vinyl. In many ways, I believe this monumental band leader, who had coached some of bluegrass and country’s biggest stars such as Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, Benny Martin and so many others, sensed my concerns of filling such a giant fiddler’s shoes. Baker had just quit a few weeks before, after 22 years with the Blue Grass Boys. Mr. Monroe, being a stickler for detail, did not have a reputation for giving musicians in his band much slack to carry their weight. Therefore, although we were friends, I think my feelings were appropriate. This trip was already full of firsts for me; I was now an official member of the Blue Grass Boys, and I was taking my first airplane flight. In the process of the flight, I got to move from each leg of the journey to a smaller and smaller plane as I moved closer to Yakima, Wash., where I met the band on their return from Japan. Baker had quit just before that trip. I am just glad there wasn’t one more connection, or I would have been out in the air flapping my arms. That last plane was awfully small. After taking those four steps onto the bus off the gray sidewalk, Mr. Monroe and the rest of the Blue Grass Boys — Wayne Lewis (guitar), Tater Tate (bass and fiddle), and Blake Williams (banjo) — greeted me. Mr. Monroe’s first words were: “Thank you for coming, glad you could be with us.” Blake showed me to my bunk, and then I had to sit down with Mr. Monroe to discuss the evening’s show. While we had played together, and he had faith in my abilities, there is a big difference between jamming and carrying a stage show. Especially when the fiddle often began each song, set the tempo and could make or break a show. As an experienced band leader, I think he sensed my concerns of not measuring up to the task of filling not only Baker’s shoes, but those of the dozens of other fiddlers from Bobby Hicks to Byron Berline and even current band member Tater Tate. “Do you know my material?” he asked. “Yes sir, I know a lot of it — “Jerusalem Ridge,” “Road to Columbus,” “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz,” — but I do not really know what you regularly include in your stage shows,” I said. That evening, we were scheduled to appear at the Capital Theatre, a 1920s-era grand movie house that was now Yakima’s crown jewel of entertainment. Mr. Monroe talked with me a few minutes and called Tater to the front of the bus. “Do you play the big fiddle?” he asked me. I said, “A little.” “I think for tonight, Tater, you should work with him on the big fiddle, and you play the little fiddle until he is comfortable,” he said. So, I was off the hook. The fiddling fears went away for a moment. In one decision, Mr. Monroe had figured out a way to ease me into my new responsibilities a bit at a time, much like you would test the water as you were going in wading one foot at a time. This also gave me the chance to learn the ropes from Tater. But now, rather than walk on stage my first time as a Blue Grass Boy with my then constant companion, my Guarnerious violin, I would step on stage with its older brother, Tater’s “doghouse bass.” In my life, I had held one only a few times, but I did know some of the basics. Tater gave me a 20-minute crash course on what I needed to know to get through the 75-minute show. As we prepared for the show that evening, I dressed in my gray Blue Grass Boy suit, put on my gray Stetson Blue Grass Boy hat, grabbed the bass fiddle and an arm full of my records and headed to the dressing room backstage. I had traveled in music for years, but until I stepped through that door as a member of the Blue Grass Boys, I really did not know what it was like to be treated as a star. As the set grew near, I was putting thick white tape on my fingers to protect the skin from the blisters that would come from playing the bass. I peaked out from behind the red velour curtains, which seemed to reach for the sky, to see every seat full, with people seemingly hanging from the rafters. As the master of ceremonies was preparing the audience, the Blue Grass Boys took our places on stage and waited for the emcee to reach a crescendo. As soon as Mr. Monroe took his first steps on the stage, the entire audience was on their feet with a standing ovation. As Tater and Blake hit the first notes of “Sweet Blue Eyed Darling,” I grabbed a hold and held on for dear life, doing my best to hold the rhythm together. The show began to roll and did not stop until the audience called us back for encore after encore. It really did not seem like an hour and 25 minutes; it just flew by, as did all of my performances with Mr. Monroe. As I stepped off the stage, Mr. Monroe stopped, smiled and patted me on the back and said, “Thank you.” I had made it through and the ride was just beginning. I was really a Blue Grass Boy. After that first show, Tater and I began swapping fiddle and bass duties, easing me into the shoes of all those that came before. Even today, after walking in them for years, there sure is a lot of room left in those shoes, but I just keep trying to fill them. Thanks to my work with Monroe and other bluegrass legends I was honored as a Bluegrass Legend in 2011 at the Monroe Centennial Celebration at the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro, Ky. and am blessed to part of a unique brotherhood that includes many of bluegrass music’s greatest musicians. About Randall Franks — Actor/entertainer Randall Franks is best known as “Officer Randy Goode” from TV’s “In the Heat of the Night,” a role he performed on NBC and CBS from 1988-1993 and now on WGN America. He was part of cast of three other TV Series including Robert Townsend’s “Musical Theater of Hope” which aired on UPtv (Gospel Music Channel).

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.