“He’s already smart and hard enough to get along with. We’ll never handle him now!” So joked Bill Monroe as a Wisconsin audience clamored for a third encore of Richard Greene’s breakneck rendition of “Orange Blossom Special.” Richard’s classical virtuosity and aggressive style stoked the intensity of the Blue Grass Boys’ live performances and set a new standard for fiddlers to aspire to. After his stint with the “Father of Bluegrass,” Richard went on to pioneer the use of electric violin within rock and roll, develop “new acoustic” music with David Grisman, and experiment with jazz and folk music within the setting of a string quartet. Richard continues to teach and perform bluegrass music, receiving a Grammy for his work on the Bill Monroe tribute album, True Life Blues. 2002 saw the debut of his first concerto for bluegrass violin and orchestra, entitled “What if Mozart Played With Bill Monroe?”
You started out playing classical, and I remember seeing you in the ’70s with Seatrain playing a cross between rock and fiddle music.
Yeah, exactly. With the fiddle, I tried to capture as much of the rock music of the day, which was the Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. That was my contemporary stuff that I really loved.
So how did you get into playing folk music?
Before I played bluegrass, my first interest in music was old time music. The first band I really loved were the New Lost City Ramblers. Mike Seeger played fiddle. That band just killed me! That was my first passionate experience with music like that. In fact, Mike Seeger was my first fiddle teacher. There was some stuff he did that I just had to learn. So I took a formal lesson from Mike Seeger. That would be in 1963 or ’64.
And you got into bluegrass through the New Lost City Ramblers?
No, through Scotty Stoneman. That turned me into the other kind of fiddler. From old-timey into serious raging bluegrass. Because that guy had it like no other fiddler I’ve ever heard before or after.
You saw him perform live?
Yeah, face to face. Came to the Ashgrove and he was sitting out in the front room some afternoon just playing “Listen to the Mockingbird,” stuff that I’d really never heard before -- what was then modern bluegrass fiddle. And I was gone! I thought Mike Seeger did something to me, but it was nothing like what Scott did to me. That catapulted me into being a musician for the rest of my life.
And when did you start playing with Bill Monroe?
How much did your playing change in that year?
Oh, radically! It went from embryonic to childish, which is quite a jump. [laughs] I was just unformed energy when I entered his band. Raw, intense, very passionate, devoted energy, and he had to really push it into shape. For the first several months, I was not allowed to play fills or melodic things in the background. Only rhythm and then my solos.
Really, why was that?
Because my timing was bad. So that was the therapy. Now imagine being in a band where you get therapy! That never happens. You’re usually in a band where you get thrown out.
True enough, so how well did it work?
It worked. He knew how to fix me, so he fixed me. Carlton Haney (the bluegrass impresario) says, “If Bill didn’t make ’im, he ain’t any good.” ’Cause Bill has to make you, for you to be anything, according to this bluegrass aficionado. I wouldn’t go that far... I might, though, if I really think about it. Because all the fiddlers who I think are the greatest, the guitar players, the singers, Bill made ’em all. It’s hard to think of an example of someone who is really great that Bill didn’t make.
How did you finally get your backup to the point where you were allowed to play?
My timing got better, the therapy worked, and I became a full-fledged bluegrass fiddler with fills and everything else.
Were you allowed to work on it during rehearsals, just not on stage?
I was never allowed to do it until I got my timing better. I don’t know exactly when I stopped playing rhythm only and was allowed to play fills. There was a transition.
It must have been pretty daunting.
I never had any problem with any of it. I was there as a devotee, a student, and a disciple. I didn’t care what he told me! I just was there to do it. I went to him. I sought him out. It was a life’s ambition to play with Bill Monroe and I pushed and pushed and pushed, got the word out, and finally got the job.
For the rest of this interview, and Richard Greene's tune "Northern White Clouds," based on an improvisation by Bill Monroe, purchase the Summer 2005 issue of Fiddler Magazine!
[Richard Greene has a new CD out: New Acoustic and Old Time Music by Richard Greene & The Brothers Barton. For details, see Richard's website at www.richardgreene.net]
Above photo: Richard Greene as a Blue Grass Boy, 1966; photo courtesy Richard Greene.