Franklin Pierce University librarian Paul Jenkins writes new book about McClain Family Band

  • Franklin Pierce University librarian Paul Jenkins is the author of “Bluegrass Ambassadors: The McLain Family Band in Appalachia and the World.” —PHOTO COURTESY PAUL JENKINS

  • Franklin Pierce University librarian Paul Jenkins, author of “Bluegrass Ambassadors: The McLain Family Band in Appalachia and the World.” —PHOTO COURTESY PAUL JENKINS

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 1/28/2022 5:24:52 PM
Modified: 1/28/2022 5:23:36 PM

Franklin Pierce University librarian Paul Jenkins can trace his love for bluegrass music back to when he was living in Minnesota as a senior in high school.

His father was a professor of English at Carleton College, and he came home one day with a huge stack of McLain Family Band records.

“They’re a bluegrass band, and I’ve never listened to bluegrass in my life. I’ve grown up listening to the Beatles and ’70s rock ’n’ roll and folk music and a bunch of stuff, but not bluegrass music,” Jenkins said. “I listened to these records that my dad brought home of the McClain Family Band and I went, ‘This is really cool. I like bluegrass. These guys are great.’”

Now, Jenkins has a book out about the McLain Family Band, titled “Bluegrass Ambassadors: The McLain Family Band in Appalachia and the World.”

“It’s a fascinating story about a family, and how a family works together to realize their dreams and to engage in music in a passionate way,” Jenkins said. “It’s a book about the power of music and how uniquely American-branded music, bluegrass, can be conserved as an ambassadorial tool around the world.”

This is more than a metaphor in the case of the McLain Family Band, Jenkins said, because the group worked with the U.S. State Department to tour 62 foreign countries, as literal “bluegrass ambassadors.” They were also educators, teaching formal classes in higher education about bluegrass and traditional mountain music.

“They weren’t just an interesting band of musicians,” Jenkins said. “They did a lot of interesting things with their music, and that was kind of what inspired me and why I thought it was a good topic for a book.”

This is not Jenkins’ first book, or even his first book about music. He wrote a book about folk musician Richard Dyer-Bennett, “Richard Dyer-Bennett: The Last Minstrel,” and co-edited the book “Teaching the Beatles,” which released in 2018.

“Bluegrass Ambassadors” is the result of seven years of work from start to finish, he said, involving an intense process of researching, writing and editing. It also involved interviews with the band members, many of which were done by Jenkins’ initial co-writer Katie Hoffmann, who ended up dropping out from the project.

According to the band’s website, mclainfamilyband.com, the core touring band includes Raymond McLain, Ruth McLain, Alice and Al White and Daxson Lewis, with Nancy Ann Wartman and Michael and Jennifer McLain making occassional guest appearances.

Even once the manuscript was complete and edited, more work needed to be done getting permission to use photographs and song lyrics. It also got interrupted by other projects, including his co-edited book about the Beatles, which took up 2 1/2 years.

“And then the magical day arrives in November 2020, when I come home from work, there’s a box of my 10 free author copies that arrived at my house,” Jenkins said. “And I’m like, ‘Hallelujah,’ because seven years after I started this work, I’ve got a finished product.”

But the work was far from a slog, Jenkins said – in fact, it was fun to research and write.

“They’re very fun to work with,” he said. “They are very friendly people, they’re personable, they made time for me out of their busy lives, their busy schedule, and I got to travel to various places to see them.”

Jenkins also said he learned a lot from writing the book, specifically about the Appalachian Region. The book was published as part of the West Virginia University Press series called “Sounding Appalachian,” and so part of Jenkins’ angle into the story of the band was heavily informed by Appalachia as a region.

“Nobody had ever written a book about the McLain Family Band before,” Jenkins added, making the project especially exciting.

All of this work happened on top of Jenkins’ day job as librarian at Franklin Pierce. Although the university encourages faculty to do research and publish, Jenkins said that he did most of the work for the book in his off hours, in between his family life and his job.

“It’s a lot to juggle,” he said. “But once you get your teeth into a project, it motivates you, and what really motivates you is getting it done. And it’s exciting, you know, and that’s what gives you the energy to take on these tasks.”

Jenkins said that he hopes readers will come away from the book with an appreciation for its many subjects, both the band and Appalachia.

“I want readers to get excited about the band and listen to their music, I want them to learn more about Appalachia,” he said. “I want them to learn more about how music can bring people together.”


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