This coming Tuesday marks the 100th anniversary of Bill Monroe's birth and is a day that the bluegrass community has been anticipating and discussing for years; I'm not sure when I first heard mention of the centennial, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that it was a decade ago.
Over the past month I have attempted to bring attention to several songs and albums that may be suitable for honouring Mr. Monroe, a list that might appeal to both neophytes and bluegrass veterans.
I've enjoyed the project and feel quite blessed that I've been able to be exposed to so much wonderful music. Like most of you (I imagine) I find it difficult to purchase every bluegrass album that I would like to hear and have to limit myself to a budget. As a result, I haven't heard the latest Rounder compilation "Bill Monroe Centennial Celebration - A Classic Bluegrass Tribute" or the recent Frank Wakefield Monroe tribute: Patuxent Music elected not to service me with the latter, which was unfortunate, but I hope to purchase a copy next month. Since I haven't heard them, I can't recommend those releases, but I have found five more albums that I think would be more than enjoyable on this final weekend before September 13.
5. Back when I was just a young bluegrass listener (okay, slightly younger) I found it hard to imagine a set as fine as "The Legend Lives On: A Tribute to Bill Monroe". I played that one over and over in the early aughts, drawn to the intensity of the performances captured live at the Ryman in April 1997. When Skaggs encouraged, "Y'all sing along with us, alright; this is Uncle Pen," I more than happily complied.
I think I started to appreciate Connie Smith while listening to Walkin' in Jerusalem, and I know that I've loved the anecdote-laden Cross-Eyed Child since the first time I heard John Hartford sing-speaking it on his "Good Old Boys" album. This live version is every bit as charming if less expansive than the ten-minute plus reverential opus that appeared on that 1999 Rounder disc.
Getting back to "The Legend Lives On", at the time I couldn't think of anything much cooler than hearing Marty with Del & 'Em, who were at the time at or darn near their peak as far as I'm concerned. And that only brings us to track five! For the most part, every featured artist appears two or three times throughout the double-album set: you have Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Jim & Jesse, Tim O'Brien, Larry Sparks, The Blue Grass Boys, and more. All in all, a good way to spend a couple hours recalling the power of Bill Monroe.
4. Even better? Listening to Bill himself. Back in 2004, David Grisman released a show he captured on the east coast in 1963. Featuring the Del McCoury-era Blue Grass Boys- Bill/Brad Keith, Joe Stuart, and Bessie Lee Mauldin-, this 40-minute set is a pure slice of history. Again, at one time, I thought things didn't get much better than "Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys Live at Mechanics Hall" and it still gives me a bit of a thrill when I give it a listen.
Basically 16 songs recorded with a bit of hollow in its sound, this album captures a band that sounds as tight as one can imagine. Perhaps there is fault to find, but I can't hear it...and if I could, it wouldn't matter. I never saw Bill Monroe live but this set- recorded only five months before I was born- makes me feel that I can imagine what the experience may have been like. Neil Rosenberg's notes add the details that flesh out the event.
The set list is quite incredible. Del sings lead on Dark Hollow and On and On. Rawhide gets a workout, as does Muleskinner Blues. In fact, the six-song spread of MSB, Footprints in the Snow, Blue Moon of Kentucky, Rawhide, John Henry, and I Saw the Light comes as close to bluegrass perfection as I need.
Bill's daughter Melissa sings a couple songs, as does Bea Lilly; we don't have to discuss which performances I enjoy more, do we?
Thank goodness David Grisman carried around a reel-to-reel recorder in the early 60s.
3. Peter Rowan- "The First Whippoorwill" A month ago I had never heard of this 1985 album recorded for Sugar Hill Records by one-time Blue Grass Boys Peter Rowan. I'm glad I came across it as it is a loving tribute to the Bluegrass Sage who was Bill Monroe. I bought the download so I'm at a bit of a disadvantage without notes, but some research tells me that the album features a few former Blue Grass Boys: Bill Keith, Richard Greene, and Buddy Spicher. Augmented by substantial performances from Sam Bush and Alan O'Bryant, this is the kind of music I love to hear from Rowan. Some of the song selections appear quite inspired and- for the most part- Rowan avoids the most commonly recorded Monroe songs although It's Mighty Dark to Travel sneaks in to close the set. Beautiful harmonies and lovely instrumentation: calm, gentle, and heartfelt. Love it.
2. and 1. You have to love Rebel Records. With its County Records sister label, Rebel has been dishing out bluegrass since 1960. Last month Rebel released the dual (but separate) sets "With Body and Soul" (secular) and "Let the Light Shine Down" (gospel) comprised of a generous 34- Monroe related tracks pulled from the vaults.
I love my day job. I work with real good people, great kids. I enjoy the challenges that each day brings as a teacher and school administrator. I especially love the time I have in my truck heading to work at around 7 AM each day- time to reflect, to appreciate the morning sun (well, not in the dead of winter), and to listen to music. This week my commute was brightened by these two albums, making my days even better!
Song after song I sang really bad harmony and co-leads with the Seldom Scene, Del, Rowan, the Lost & Found, Dave Evans, and the Boys from Indiana. I played mental air-fiddle with Benny Martin and Kenny Baker, and dug deep to sing along with Dr. Ralph. When Dan Tyminski & the Lonesome River Band slide into the Rocky Road Blues, all you can do is groove.
Some of the songs I don't normally or exclusively associate with Bill Monroe, Wayfaring Stranger and I Am A Pilgrim, for example. But, what the heck- Rebel knows more about bluegrass than I'll ever imagine, so I'm not going to quibble about their selections. Again, several Blue Grass Boys are featured and Neil Rosenberg again ties everything together with insightful writing.
Available at a price that is appealing, I can well imagine these two albums serving as someone's bluegrass introduction: a good thing as they'll be headed in the right direction- respecting the roots of bluegrass and Bill Monroe.
This week, celebrate bluegrass. Celebrate Bill Monroe.