Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys: The Gospel Spirit
Bill Monroe is one of those music legends who, even in death, dares historians to untangle fact from mythic fiction, and defies revisionist attempts by critics to distill his vast contribution to contemporary culture into one monolithic message. Since having been ordained the father of bluegrass, his legacy has gracefully slumped into nostalgia and obsolescence, permitting legions of retrospective compilations and self-described imitators to rename him the father of the presumptuous and anachronistic genre of "old-time" music, recasting Monroe as a pioneer of premature aging. Luckily, the latest Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys compilation from MCA Nashville has arrived just in the nick of time to save Monroe from his own epitaph. The album, entitled The Gospel Spirit, features a collection of Monroe's recordings from the 1950s, taken mainly from his album I Saw the Light, and focuses exclusively on his spiritual recordings. Unlike prior anthologies which span the myriad transitions in Monroe's music, this album provides the unique opportunity to glimpse a snapshot in time of the Blue Grass Boys' fluctuating lineup and to delve deeper into the many surprising complexities and tensions in Monroe's musical legacy. Seen in a new light, the legend of Bill Monroe takes on new life and dynamism that contemporary eulogists prefer to gloss over.
Few today can imagine the enormous popularity of Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, as the genre they spawned has developed into a peculiar niche shared only with jug-bands, jam bands, rural fetishists and Luddites. Yet, no more than 60 years ago, Monroe was playing to sold-out tent shows (the equivalent of the modern-day stadium) and had several top-20 singles. These were the days when artists didn't get their break until they played the Grand Ole Opry, and it wasn't until one young Elvis Presley covered Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky" that rock and roll could finally win over the hearts and minds of Middle America. In fact, the similarities between the development of bluegrass and rock and roll are so striking, it's almost surprising that we aren't all listening to bluegrass and wondering what in heck happened to all that rockin' business.
Monroe's style was born out of a fusion of the folk music traditions of his Kentucky family with the country-blues style of a black guitarist named Arnold Shultz whom Monroe met as a teenager playing in the family band. That thin, mournful yowl for which Monroe has been immortalized is acutely reminiscent of country-blues pioneer Robert Johnson's own unique vocal style, particularly on songs like "Get on Your Knees and Pray", as the mandolin strikes out a familiar blues progression and the slow pace and stripped-down instrumentation reveal the traces of the bluesman's fundamental imprint. What prevailed in rock and roll was the urban blues influence that bluegrass lacks, but what was lost was the volatile mix of musical virtuosity and a sort of grassroots punk rock ethic and pace that still makes the genre irresistible to the attuned listener.
Just listening to the blistering mandolin breaks on songs like "I'm Working on a Building" and "Lord Protect My Soul" is enough to convince anyone of Monroe's solid place in history, despite the fact that mandolin virtuosity isn't much of a qualification in the electric guitar driven world of today's popular music. Nevertheless, Monroe's meticulous attention to musical perfection in his own performance as a musician, and in the tight vocal harmonies that pervade every track, reflects a deeper allegiance to high-minded art music that defies the contemporary redefinition of bluegrass as simple folk music. The Blue Grass Boys were serious musicians who seriously rocked. Songs like "Angels Rock Me to Sleep" take off with the tempo of a freight train, the brightness and intensity of the music and rip-roaring solos contrasting with the darkness of the lyrics, leaving little doubt that bluegrass was more the music of edgy and swaggering hardcore rockers than clean-cut family-friendly folks.
Monroe's gospel music is another clue to his multi-dimensional personality. The songs are deeply spiritual and devotional, emphasizing the power of the grace of God to save man from earthly sin. Yet, the tales of Monroe's own idiosyncrasies reveal he himself was not free of sin, and the repeated imagery of the pilgrim traveling alone down a dark road of pain and suffering is not so distant an image from the bluesman at the crossroads. Monroe's gospel frequently paints the image of a man well on his way down the path of sin, but confident that he has sold his soul to the right man, Jesus Christ. Simmering below the surface of songs like "I Am a Pilgrim" and "Life's Railway to Heaven" is this internal contradiction of eternal faith and damnation, the phrase "god-fearing" made musically manifest. A particularly striking example is the classic "Wayfaring Stranger", more recently interpreted by Papa M as a straightforward self-denigrating ballad in which plaintive guitar arpeggios and heroine-addled lyrics inflate the anti-heroic reputation of the performer. On Monroe's version, however, the lyrics are dark, though more densely woven with biblical metaphor. The music, rather than being straightforward and uniform, is almost alternately bright and terrifically dirge-like, the rhythm section scraping out a mournful and brooding melody while Monroe's own mandolin plucking rings out in hopeful optimism.
From this it is clear that the soul of bluegrass is not so easily understood, and that for Monroe, bluegrass and gospel, like life and church, were essentially opposed and yet necessarily one. In his personal life, certainly, he never could do without either. As a reflection of this legendary life, and out of respect for the deeper meanings that are so often glossed over in contemporary imaginations, The Gospel Spirit is a wonderful addition to the dialogue surrounding bluegrass music and its founder, and is a beautiful record of a truly great musician.