If Bill Monroe were still alive to record, his albums would sound just like this one. Such is the influence he had on Del McCoury – both as a player and as a former bandmate. McCoury, who played in Monroe’s band for a single, yet undeniably inspirational year from 1963 through 1964, has put together a collection of Monroe tunes that extends far beyond the term tribute. In essence, it is a true, respectful, and near perfect re-creation of a work that could have been Monroe’s.
These days, it seems our CD shelves and movie theatres are being flooded with rewrites, reissues, re-releases, and re-creations. Hardly a week goes by that something unoriginal isn’t redone. In a certain way, it’s saddening to think that our nation’s supposed most creative thrive on other people’s work. But in another way, it’s refreshing to see so many honour those that came before them – those they learned from, and without whom we wouldn’t have such current creative minds. Herein lies the reason why Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe is special. Without Mr. Monroe, Mr. McCoury would likely not be the musician he is today, and, on a much larger scale, nor would bluegrass have formed as it did. Actually, bluegrass may not have existed at all. This September marked what would have been Monroe’s 100th birthday, so what time more fitting than now to pay respects to the Father of Bluegrass?
As McCoury puts it, the 16-track record is made up of “songs I’d never heard him sing … songs that he’d sing on a show, and … songs that he’d sang on the record,” but all that were definitive of Monroe and the genre whether they were popular or not. In essence, Old Memories is not a greatest hits album, nor would it have necessarily been a best seller had it been created by Monroe himself. Instead, it is a simple collection of some of his music.
McCoury dives right in. From the opening track – a 14-second tune called “Watermelon on the Vine” – the energy is high. Just a couple of tracks later he takes on “Lonesome Truck Driver’s Blues”. Though more often he sings with a lower voice, McCoury does not shy away from the high notes when doing his best Monroe, and on “Truck Driver”, there are plenty. His band, which includes two of his sons – Ronnie on mandolin and Rob on banjo – as well as fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bertram, is perfectly in synch. Rhythmically they all pull the load, but they are all capable of taking solos, and they all do so fantastically at one point or another.
McCoury’s solos and general guitar playing are as tight as ever. As he admits in interviews, he plays with more runs on this album than normal – a characteristic he learned while playing these songs under Monroe’s tutelage. His solo on “Close By” is right in line with this statement, as are quite a few others on the record. Even though these runs aren’t necessarily found as heavily on his original recordings, he proves here that he’s got the chops to do just about anything he wants (not that we were doubting that anyway).
Probably the most well-known track on the record is “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome” – written originally by Monroe with Hank Williams. Here, McCoury and son Ronnie harmonize together, and give soloing honors to Rob (McCoury) and Jason Carter. Though it may not have the same tenderness as the original, it certainly has the necessary passion. The same is true of “Alabama Waltz”. Meanwhile, “John Henry”, “Brakeman’s Blues” and “Heavy Traffic Ahead” are certainly equal in energy to their models.
As a whole, it is quite possible that this recording accomplished exactly what its makers set out to do: pay tribute to a pioneer while also being a poignant, enjoyable, and fresh listen. Though our shelves and our worlds are clouded by re-issues and fabrications, this falls nowhere near that. It is as authentic as you can get, a true tribute by a man who deserves one of his own.