For Senior Writer Roger Wolmuth, reporting and writing this week’s story on bluegrass king Bill Monroe (page 48) was a chance both to celebrate the mandolin master’s 50th year as a recording artist and to deepen a previous acquaintance. Wolmuth first encountered Monroe nine years ago as a TIME reporter covering the Bean Blossom, Ind. Bluegrass Festival. “Like many people at the time, I had thought that bluegrass was old music; I didn’t know that it was practically invented by Monroe in the ’40s,” says Wolmuth. “I was intrigued then by the guy. He was 65, robust and still going strong. Now he’s 74, still robust and still going strong.” The four days that Wolmuth and photographer David Gahr spent with Monroe were, says Wolmuth, “a high point in terms of both our reporting experiences.”
Wolmuth, 39, joined LIFE right out of Williams College in 1968 as a promotion copywriter. Two years later he became a writer on TIME, then moved to PEOPLE in 1977. He and his wife, Sheila Dugan, a third-year law student, live in Manhattan’s SoHo section with the two youngest of her five daughters. As a senior writer, Wolmuth is rarely free to report as well as write a story. “So I have to choose,” he says. A guitar picker himself, Wolmuth seized the opportunity to revisit a personal hero.
On their first day together, Monroe hosted Wolmuth and Gahr at his Goodlettsville, Tenn. farmstead. “He seemed less stern to me than before,” says Wolmuth. “I think he had mellowed out a bit.” Monroe was particularly proud of four colts born the day before, and “one by one he brought them out,” says Wolmuth, “just like he was showing off new babies.”
After watching Monroe perform on the Grand Ole Opry, reporter and photographer followed him to Bean Blossom, where their sudden appearance during Monroe’s first set gave him an opening for some typical humor. “Folks, looky there, that fellow’s from PEOPLE magazine,” Monroe called out to the audience. “They’ve been doing a story on me, and I haven’t had to pay for a meal all week.” Gentleman that he is, Monroe reciprocated with a parting dinner of his own. “It was a touching farewell,” says Wolmuth. “He had shared a great deal with us, both music and memories. We regretted having to leave him.”