[3 April 2012]
Rounder Records continues its oddly underwhelming centennial celebration of Bill Monroe’s birth with yet another release of previously-released material. This time it’s Tony Rice’s various takes on the master’s work, in the form of The Bill Monroe Collection. This compilation of 14 tunes is as impeccably recorded and performed as one would expect with a performer of Rice’s caliber, yet the whole thing carries an inevitable whiff of been-there-done-that.
One certainly can’t fault the songs. There are nostalgic odes in the form of “I’m on My Way Back to the Old Home” and “Little Cabin Home on the Hill”, love songs like “When You Are Lonely” and “You’re Drifting Away”, devotionals like “River of Death”, and instrumentals a la “Jerusalem Ridge” and “Cheyenne”. For casual bluegrass listeners, it will be a treat, as these songs are well crafted by Monroe and performed by Rice and company to exacting standards.
At over six and a half minutes, “Jerusalem Ridge” deserves mention as the album’s standout track. Most bluegrass songs are short bursts of white-hot fingerpicking or high-lonesome wailing, and the majority of tunes here fit that description—eight of the 14 tracks clock in at under three minutes. “Jerusalem Ridge” is more than twice that, giving the band plenty of time to toss the melody back and forth among Rice’s guitar and the band’s fiddle and mandolin and back again. (The enclosed booklet offers no information on any of the accompanying musicians or singers—a shameful omission.) The tune itself is one of the most earwormy that Monroe ever penned, and that’s saying something. For bluegrass novices or casual listeners, this track alone is worth the cost of the album.
Other standouts include the multi-part vocal harmonies on “River of Death”, a sinisterly-titled song that is actually an upbeat gospel number, and the frenetic instrumental “Gold Rush”, which is a masterpiece of lightning-quick yet perfectly clean finger-picking and fiddling. “Cheyenne” is another standout tune, and another instrumental that channels high-energy musicianship into a note-perfect performance, this time throwing banjo into the mix (a bluegrass staple that is surprisingly underrepresented). The well-known and much-covered “Muleskinner Blues” features strong vocals and a stop-and-start rhythm that sets it a little bit apart from the straight-ahead tempos of the other songs.
All 14 of these tracks have been culled from previous Tony Rice albums such as Unit of Measure and Cold on the Shoulder, or else previous Rounder efforts such as The Bluegerass Album. In fact, ten of these songs have been released more than once, making this the third release for them. “Cheyenne” was also released on last year’s Bill Monroe Centenniel Collection, making this the fourth time this particular song has been released. Not to belabor the point, but if you have even a passing interest in the genre, it’s quite likely that you will have heard some of these songs before.
Like last year’s two-disc comp The Bill Monroe Centenniel Collection: A Classic Bluegrass Tribute, this album is valuable mainly for casual fans who lack familiarity with the music but want something to throw on as a change of pace. For newbies wishing to put together a basic bluegrass “greatest hits” library, this record is invaluable. There is nothing here, however, for committed fans.