Bill Monroe: Anthology

Jason MacNeil

Bill Monroe


Label: Decca
US Release Date: 2003-04-22
UK Release Date: Available as import

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!

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.