On February 17, 1936 the Monroe Brothers, Charlie and Bill, arrived at RCA Victor’s recording studio in Charlotte, North Carolina, really just an ad hoc setup in the second floor warehouse of Victor’s regional distributor, the Southern Radio Corporation, for their first recording session. Eli Olberstein, A&R man for Victor’s Bluebird label, the imprint the company reserved for “race” and “hillbilly” records, hadn’t had an easy time getting Charlie and Bill into the studio (his first entreaty, a telegram in which he insisted he wouldn’t take no for an answer, met with no answer at all), but once he did little time was wasted. Between 3:30 and 6:00 that February afternoon Olberstein cut 10 sides on the Monroe Brothers, most in one take, including what proved to be their most popular and commercially successful song, “What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul?”
Five more Victor sessions followed, at roughly six month intervals, before pride and ego proved to be thicker than blood and the brothers went their separate ways. By the conclusion of their last studio date in January, 1938 the Monroe Brothers had recorded 60 songs for Bluebird, a body of work of profound influence on the future of folk, country and bluegrass music. The Monroe Brothers Vol. 1: What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul?, which collects the 10 sides cut at that first February session as well as five from a second session in June of 1936, is the first of a projected four volumes from Rounder that will restore to print the Monroe Brothers complete studio recordings. It’s high time.
By early 1936 Charlie and Bill had been full-time working musicians for two years and had already established themselves, by dint of daily radio work and relentless touring in the Southeast, as regional stars and one of the leading brother duos (along with the Delmore Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys) in a day when brother duos were all the rage. But the Brothers’ sound—sky high harmonies atop whiplash tempos, Charlie’s dynamic bass runs on guitar in a dead heat with Bill’s blistering mandolin—and fondness for gospel music distinguished them from the competition. Vol. 1 captures both the sound and the fondness with an immediacy so disarming it’s no great leap to imagine you’re hearing the Monroe Brothers over live radio in a parlor or on a porch in early 1936.
Seven of the 15 tracks here draw on the Brothers’ gospel repertoire. For the sacred material Charlie and Bill were inclined to keep the instrumental fireworks under wraps (and Bill always did, there are no fancy instrumental breaks of the Bluegrass Boys gospel recordings either), apparently feeling that their fraternal harmonies, in unison or call and response, were ample testimony to faith. Whether the songs were learned from shape-note hymnals of their youth (the title track, “God Holds the Future in His Hands”) or from African-American gospel 78s (“Do You Call That Religion?”) the Monroes presented them with all the reverence due the subject matter.
The secular songs—things like “My Long Journey Home,” “Nine Pound Hammer,” “On Some Foggy Mountain Top,” and “New River Train”—are another matter entirely. Here the Brothers’ high flying harmonies are coupled to driving rhythms, and entire choruses are given to showcasing Bill’s revolutionary attack on the mandolin, a revolution which was not just about speed (though it’s hard to imagine that any human being could play faster than he does on “Watermelon Hanging on the Vine”), but rhythm and phrasing too (check “Little Red Shoes”). At this late date, our ears accustomed to fast, agile mandolinists, it’s worth remembering that at the time of these recordings no-one had ever before played the instrument with such blazing ferocity . Few enough have since.
The tracks have the sparkling clean sound that digital remastering affords, and the set features liner notes by the dean of country music historians, Charles Wolf. At the risk of courting cliché, these really are essential recordings, and not just for their historical value. They are as fresh and exciting as the day Eli Olberstein recorded them.