Bill Monroe is the root of all the branches that make up contemporary bluegrass music. Whether you’re speaking about Ricky Skaggs, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Peter Rowan, or Del McCoury, the roads all lead through an apprenticeship with Monroe’s supporting band. To loosely put it into baseball terms, Monroe is easily the Babe Ruth of bluegrass, minus the carousing and controversy. For this compilation, which spans more than three decades and features some fifty tracks, you get the best he had to offer. And by Jove, he wasn’t lying.
The first disc begins with “New Mule Skinner Blues”, the Jimmie Rodgers song Monroe recorded in February, 1950. It’s a straightforward track that is deep in bluegrass, with Monroe’s high notes and yodeling the biggest asset. Given the length of the song, which clocks in a tad over two minutes, it seems the perfect amount of time to showcase Monroe’s truly incredible wares. Rudy Lyle’s banjo and Vassar Clements’ fiddle are also strong points. “My Little Georgia Rose” keeps the passion going and has a bit more Southern swing to it.
“Uncle Pen”, one of Monroe’s signature songs, was recorded just eight months after the first two offerings. But already he had made changes within the group. The harmonies tend to overshadow the song as Monroe tones down vocally. The initial instrumental is “Raw Hide” and rips through the listener with frantic yet meticulous styles of playing by all musicians, including Monroe’s mandolin. “Panhandle Country” and “Roanoke” are other shining moments appearing later on during this first disc. “Kentucky Waltz” is a breather in the record as the singer stretches a bit while singer.
Monroe might have been a hellraiser when it came to his music onstage, but offstage his tone can be discerned from his choice of material. The barbershop quartet approach to “Get Down on Your Knees and Pray” isn’t as pleasing as the later effort, “Walking in Jerusalem Just Like John”. Here Monroe and his supporting cast sound like they’re perfecting a bluegrass rap, if that’s even fathomable. Songs such as “On and On”, as well as another classic, “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, follow a pattern that is rather similar generally.
Overall, though, this first disc shows just how damn good Monroe was working his craft. “Molly & Tenbrooks” is a true toe-tapper or head-bobber that has more energy than some current artists I dare not mention. And to make “I Saw the Light”, the Hank Williams classic, a bluegrass song is a hard task at best. But Monroe goes into it with both mandolin and voice blazing, taking no prisoners and making it his own. Rounding the disc off is another high-energy pickin’ track entitled “Big Mon”. “Linda Lou”, a Carl Butler song, has far more of a country honky-tonk feeling.
The second disc varies from 1960 to 1981, which shows just how intensive the work on the first disc was. Opening with “Time Changes Everything”, Monroe seems to be finding his niche on the song quite early, but it isn’t one of his stronger offerings. “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky” should have a backing harmony or two on it to give it more oomph, but Monroe doesn’t go down that road. “Old Joe Clark” finds Monroe and Tony Ellis on banjo giving and taking throughout. Taken from his Bluegrass Ramble, this returns to the early work Monroe on which prospered. The gospel inspired “Somebody Touched Me” has that deep baritone voice, which could be either Red Stanley or Culley Holt while “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy” is another high moment with sparse and simple instrumentation.
If there’s one drawback for the casual listeners, it might be that taking this body of work in one sitting might be a bit of overkill. It is over two hours in total, which is fine but perhaps too much for some. Regardless, though, Monroe’s voice seemed to get better with age, particularly on the lovable “Highway of Sorrow”. Later, “Fire on the Mountain” and the gorgeous “The Long Black Veil” might be the best one-two punch the fifty songs have to offer.
The last 10 songs on the album are a potpourri of what made Monroe so legendary: crisp playing with a tradition that dates back to his early days with his brother. Tracks like “Dusty Miller” and “Sally Goodin’” sound as if they’ve been here before, but there is just a little change here or there to give it that new fresh feeling. The album wraps up with “My Last Days on Earth” which Monroe recorded in 1981. Although he is no longer with us, this is a perfect introduction to what all the fuss was about. O Brother Where Art Thou? might not exist without this man. And Kentucky wouldn’t have a state anthem!
// Notes from the Road
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