september 2011

Bill Monroe: an unassailable fact of life in this world

Always There

The looming presence of Bill Monroe is conjured in a grand tribute to his music

By David McGee

Various Artists

Doing what it can do better than most roots music labels, Rounder has plumbed its awe inspiring catalogue for a double-CD centennial tribute to the father of bluegrass in the form of a compilation of Bill Monroe tunes as performed over the years by Rounder artists, including Dailey & Vincent, who account for the newest cut on the release, a classically styled keening heartbreaker, “Close By,” from a forthcoming album project. In the same manner that Monroe’s music reached beyond the boundaries of what became known as bluegrass, the multiple generations of artists represented on the 28 tracks here underscore the degree to which Monroe’s songs continue to speak to musicians who grew up in times and circumstances quite different from the rural, isolated, close-knit family life Monroe knew in his childhood and which informed his view of the world and the values he advanced as a songwriter—values that clearly have not gone out of style, as these performances prove, ranging as they do from the 1970s to the present day.

The Bluegrass Album Band (Tony Rice, J.D. Crowe, Jerry Douglas, Doyle Lawson, Bobby Hicks and Mark Schatz) play Bill Monroe’s ‘Cheyenne,’ as heard on Bill Monroe Centennial Celebration

The eight instrumentals and 20 vocal performances on this collection attest to the long shadow Mr. Bill’s music casts over the mainstream bluegrass world. From Joe Val & The New England Bluegrass Boys (who began recording for Rounder in 1972, when the label was but two years old) to Tony Rice and young Ricky Skaggs, to the Nashville Bluegrass Band and the Bluegrass Album Band from the ‘80s on to the present day with Claire Lynch and Dailey & Vincent, the music has a unity of purpose, a moral code and a life affirming spirit (forget the pointy-headed Rolling Stone critic who denigrated traditional bluegrass for its “hidebound formalism”) that has reached across decades and continues to challenge and inspire new generations of young bluegrass strivers--kids, really--who themselves, though never having seen the man in the flesh, honor his music on their own dedicated festival stages coast to coast every season. In his excellent liner notes, Rounder co-founder Bill Nowlin provides a succinct summary of Monroe’s biography, delves briefly into the man’s complicated personality and points out how Monroe’s art reached beyond the bounds of bluegrass to affect country artists of his time and to be one of the building blocks of early rock ‘n’ roll. (He errs only in citing Sun Records rockabilly artist Charlie Feathers as the source of Elvis Presley’s arrangement of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and in repeating the inaccurate story from Richard D. Smith’s biography of Monroe, Can’t You Hear Me Callin’, that when Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins were introduced Elvis’s first words were to ask if Perkins liked Bill Monroe’s music. Feathers, one of rockabilly’s great fabulists--denounced by Sun founder Sam Phillips in a 1979 phone call to yours truly as “a fool and a liar”--never worked at Sun and was nowhere near the studio the day Elvis, Scotty and Bill worked up their impromptu rendition of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” that Phillips hurried to get on tape. And Elvis and Carl did talk about Bill Monroe, but only when their paths first crossed in the Sun studio after Carl and his brothers had been signed to the label. Their first meeting, months earlier at a high school gymnasium in Bethel Springs, TN, where Elvis was performing, was brief and centered on whether Elvis thought the Perkins brothers might get a hearing at Sun Records, since for the past few years in the tonks of Jackson, TN, they had been playing the same type of music Presley was starting to make hay with. The Bethel Springs encounter with Elvis is reconstructed in Perkins’s biography, Go, Cat, Go! The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, by yours truly and is based on interviews with both Carl and his wife Valda, to whom he recounted the meeting with Elvis after returning from Bethel Springs.)

Claire Lynch, ‘My Florida Sunshine’

Nowlin’s liner notes are part and parcel of what makes this tribute special. His historical overview sets the stage for the outstanding performances that follow on the two discs, and provide a context for appreciating the sweep of Monroe’s art over time. Though it’s a bit frustrating that the liner copy does not list the dates of each recording, perhaps it’s more significant that when you hear Joe Val & The New England Bluegrass Boys deep in the depths of sorrow mourning a dying girl’s deathbed wishes in the devastating “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling” and Blue Highway’s soothing gospel harmony on “Wicked Path of Sin” you would have a hard time pinpointing which is the older track. Bluegrass musicians seem to share not only a sense of history but a bloodline as well--somehow Mr. Bill’s DNA gets into all their systems and they sing as one voice through the ages.

Although it’s tempting, owing to the uniformly inspired performances, to offer a brief take on all 28 tracks, the reader will be spared the excess verbiage and subjected only to a few highlights that point out the virtues of this collection. Claire Lynch stands out, both in the way Claire Lynch always stands out--for the immutable ache in her vulnerable voice--but also as one of only three female bluegrassers represented here, along with pioneering female bluegrassers Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard as a duo. On the other hand, if bluegrass as conceived by Bill Monroe is not folk music, what is? Alison Krauss is on Rounder but, amazingly, has not recorded a Bill Monroe song, although she has performed some in concert. Lynch is on hand with a sweet-natured breakup tune in waltz time, “My Florida Sunshine,” featuring tasty fiddle, banjo and mandolin solos and warm harmonizing in support of Lynch’s anticipation of a reconciling with her beloved, a lyrical twist responsible for the song’s upbeat temperament. More rustic, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard blend their mountain tones on the searing “True Life Blues,” from their 1974 self-titled Rounder debut album, in a deeply felt performance chronicling the many wounds marriage inflicts on a woman with an inattentive mate.

Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, ‘Dark As The Night, Blue As The Day,’ live at the 2010 AFBA Bluegrass Festival in Wind Gap, VA. On Bill Monroe Centennial Celebration, the band’s recorded version, from the album Let ‘Er Go, Boys, features Dan Tyminski and Vince Gill.

Joe Val may be a name familiar to hard-core bluegrass fans, but those new to the music or casual listeners may not have a memory of the late, great “voice of bluegrass in New England,” as he was extolled by no less than Peter Rowan. Well, Joe Val & The New England Bluegrass Boys live again on this release with three cuts, a total equal to that of the Nashville Bluegrass Band and Michael Cleveland and surpassed only by The Bluegrass Album Band’s four selections. The group’s mastery of tragic tales is demonstrated on the abovementioned “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling”; of bluegrass gospel on the soaring, plaintive “Voice From On High,” a truly profound exercise in humility and reverence both; and of high-stepping, joyous workouts--even though the subject matter concerns a dear, departed paint horse who left this mortal coil during roundup time in Texas--on “Goodbye Old Pal,” which, amidst frisky banjo and mandolin solos, gets a deep tinge of blue thanks to Val’s crying vocal spiced with Jimmy Rodgers-style blue yodeling. Any collection including a Joe Val performance--much less three--is by definition a must-have.

The slight distinctions between modern traditional and classic traditional bluegrass are well illustrated: the former by the Johnson Mountain Boys with a subdued trudge through the eerie “Walls of Time,” by the towering Ralph Stanley with an urgent sprint through the lovelorn angst of “In Despair,” by Bobby Osborne & The Rocky Top X-Press with a sturdy, fiddle- and dobro-fired take on the bluegrass gospel gem, “Mansions for Me”; the latter by the likes of Michael Cleveland, whose overdrive treatment of “Old Brown Country Barn” is a master class in the fevered fiddling Cleveland executes with ridiculous ease, whereas his rendering of “Jerusalem Ridge” is seconded by mandolinist Jesse Brock in soloing notable less for its impeccable technique than for its unadulterated soulfulness; as per overdrive, the Bluegrass Album Band (founded in 1980 by J.D. Crowe and Tony Rice for purposes of a Rice solo project, it caught on and released six albums between 1981 and 1996,  with a membership that included Doyle Lawson, Jerry Douglas, Bobby Hicks, Todd Phillips, Mark Schatz and Vassar Clements) kicks off the tribute album with a crazed, rambunctious interpretation of “Tall Timber” on which each instrumentalist takes a breathtaking, and breathless, solo on a track from the band’s sixth and so far last album, and returns for three other memorable moments; not least of all are three cuts by the Nashville Bluegrass Band (formed in 1985, its shifting membership included Gene Libbea, Roland White, Stuart Duncan and Dennis Crouch, among others), arguably the standout being the mournful treatment of the one song Monroe and Hank Williams collaborated on, “I’m Blue I’m Lonesome,” with the keening harmonies of Alan O’Bryant and Pat Enright laying on a chill and mandolinist Mike Compton and fiddler Stuart Duncan adding atmospheric solos to deepen the dark mood.

Bill Monroe & The Blue Grass Boys, ‘Wicked Path of Sin.’ On Bill Monroe Centennial Celebration, this song is performed by Blue Highway, from its Wondrous Love album.

Such are the many pleasures of the worthy Bill Monroe tribute. Add to these a terrific young Ricky Skaggs number, “Toy Heart”; arguably the most beautiful single performance on the two discs in the form of The Bluegrass Album Band’s elegant interpretation of the classic instrumental “Cheyenne,” with a slew of sensitive around-the-horn solos notable for their restraint and melodic beauty; a spirited, rhythmic workout by IIIrd Tyme Out on “Footprints In The Snow,” which, since Carl Perkins entered in this discussion earlier, explains why the Original Cat considered this one of Mr. Bill’s finest moments and, indeed, incorporated some of its bounce into the music he was creating in the years before he and his brothers auditioned for Sun Records.

There it is: not the definitive Bill Monroe tribute--such a thing would have to embrace the progressive wing that built on the Monroe legacy and took it into the uncharted bluegrass territory Monroe’s music led to without ever going there, and it would feature more of the female artists who have assayed his tunes--but an honorable one over which Monroe looms as an unassailable fact of life in this world.

Bill Monroe Centennial Celebration: A Classic Bluegrass Tribute is available at

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