Various Artists: Bill Monroe Centennial Celebration

Various Artists
Bill Monroe Centennial Celebration: A Classic Bluegrass Tribute

Last year saw Rounder Records repackaged previously-issued material on both The Bluegrass Gospel Songbook and the impressive four-disc collection, The Rounder Records Story. Now here’s another compilation of reissued songs, The Bill Monroe Centennial Collection. Like the others, this comp contains previously released material from Rounder’s impressive stable of talent (and archives of recordings): The Nashville Bluegrass Band, The Bluegrass Album Band, Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys, and many others. All of the songs here were penned by Bill Monroe, and all of them performed by someone else.

It’s worth mentioning that Rounder continues to release new albums by current bluegrass and old-timey artists such as Sierra Hull, Blue Highway and Larry Sparks, but this Bill Monroe compilation is far from new. It contains 28 tunes on two discs, accompanied by a 20-page booklet outlining Monroe’s life and career. It’s tempting to wonder about Rounder’s strategy with all this re-released material. Perhaps they’re trying to tap the moderately-interested but not fanatical listener, the sort of person who’ll enjoy a bluegrass record from time to time but doesn’t already have a stash of Tony Rice and Joe Val CDs on the shelf. Whatever the reason, this is an enjoyable set, with impeccably played tunes recorded to Rounder’s usual exacting standards.

Monroe more or less invented bluegrass, and his output and creativity was astounding, so there’s plenty of material for these musicians to draw from. Selections range from brisk instrumentals like the frenetic “Old Brown County Barn” and the moody “Cheyenne”, with its loping melody and fluid melody, to unabashedly sentimental numbers like “Close By”. Mid-tempo boot-stompers are the bluegrass picker’s bread and butter, and a fine selection of them are on display here, notably Wyatt Rice’s rendition of “Shenandoah Breakdown” with its jangling guitar and banjo, or the comical “Dog House Blues”, performed with suitable gusto by the always lively Nashville Bluegrass Band. The Celtic-inflected “Jerusalem Ridge”, an instrumental performed here by Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, is another standout.

A handful of gospel tunes make the cut as well. Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys bring us “Voice From On High”, a tune perfectly suited to their multi-part harmonies and unearthly falsetto, while Blue Highways offers a warning in “Wicked Path of Sin”, a song that uses a gentle arrangement and on-point vocal harmonies to convey the idea that this life isn’t the only one we’ve got.

The collection is heavily tilted toward male performers. Only two of the vocals are performed by women: Claire Lynch’s rendition of the overly familiar “My Florida Sunshine” and Hazel and Alice’s performance of “True Life Blues”. This disparity seems odd, given that there are plenty of bluegrass acts out there with female singers.

The enclosed booklet provides context, though little technical information (dates, locations, musicians and so forth). If it contains little that won’t be known already to Monroe fans, it nonetheless offers plenty of nuggets for the casual listener. Raise your hand if you knew, for example, that Elvis Presley’s first words to Carl Perkins were, “You like Mr. Bill Monroe?”

Bill Monroe Centennial Celebration is a fitting tribute to the 100th anniversary of the master’s birth. Listeners with any degree of interest in bluegrass will be pleased with what they find inside. The only disappointment will lie with hardcore fans who already own the albums represented. Someday Rounder may release a record of new material, but until then, this will do nicely.

RATING 7 / 10