I've written about Minnesota's Monroe Crossing band many times over the past decade, not always in a completely complimentary fashion. However, their last few releases, including "Heartache & Stone" and "Monroe Crossing Plays the Music of Bill Monroe" were formidable, and the band gave every impression of being ready to 'breakout' into the next tier of bluegrass bands. With the release of "The Road Has No End" the five-piece band fulfils and exceeds that expectation, delivering the strongest album I've heard from them.
At times in their distant past, Monroe Crossing appeared to be trying a bit too hard, pushing for something that just wasn't in them. While being largely supportive, several years ago I wrote, "Fans of Monroe Crossing will find much with which to be content on "Somebody Like You," but it is unlikely that the disc will open many doors for the band. Perhaps in their rush to create a back catalogue for table sales, the band has over-reached... and should consider that new and more are not always the wisest of business- and artistic- decisions."
My intent was to suggest the band take time to gather stronger, more distinctive material. I also praised the group and their willingness to write what they know: "the album has many fine moments, with Jeff Whitson's banjo work sparking the disc alight on When The Cold Winds Blow. The Minnesota band has a strong songwriter in guitarist and vocalist Art Blackburn, and it is hoped that he continues to create bluegrass tunes relevant to those of Northern climes."
About a live album they released in 2007, I wrote: "Monroe Crossing has matured as a band, and is stronger than ever both vocally and instrumentally; weakness in either area is hard to hide on a live disc, and no blemishes are apparent in this hour-long set. Monroe Crossing lacks the slickness of many established professional bluegrass bands, and are more than capable musicians and vocalists. They won't hit the charts with this their eighth recording, but they present the music the way a great many people like their bluegrass- lonesome, maudlin, regret-filled, and bouncy!"
As time passed, Monroe Crossing developed into a group whose albums, if I didn't exactly anticipate them, I was more than pleased to see when they did arrive.
"Minnesota's Monroe Crossing have been actively promoting their interpretation of classic bluegrass sounds tempered with folk and pop sensibilities for more than a decade, and have released a number of fine songs and listenable albums. "Heartache & Stone," their ninth album, brings to fruition their ongoing efforts and serves as a more substantial calling card than their previous releases. While banjo players have come and gone, the group has been long centered about the twin powers of Art Blackburn (guitar and vocals) and Lisa Fuglie (fiddle and vocals). This formidable pair continues to be ably complemented by mandolinist Matt Thompson and bassist Mark Anderson. Benji Flaming remains on five-string, duplicating the lineup featured on "Live from Silver Dollar City" a couple of years back.
What has changed? Perhaps I'm the only one to sense it, but it seems like the band is no longer trying too hard. It is as if they have grown into themselves and accepted not only any limitations they may have - and if these exist, they are not apparent from listening - and embraced their attributes. It is as if they have become more comfortable within their skin."
Blackburn eventually departed the band, under his own terms, as I recall, and he remains involved with the band in a supportive, business role. Of their Monroe tribute album of 2011, I wrote: "This Minnesota band has come such a long way over the past decade; it is gratifying to see them sticking close to the roots of the music on this lovely 14-song tribute.
A five-piece fronted by Lisa Fuglie and Derek Johnson, Monroe Crossing has long had one of the best visual identifiers in the business and their music over their most recent releases has taken huge steps forward. Monroe Crossing has continually matured as a band, and is now stronger than ever both vocally and instrumentally. Matt Thompson's mandolin style is very complementary to Monroe's music and there are times while listening to this recording that one easily pictures 1950s high school gym and radio studio shows."
To 2013 now, and the release of "The Road Has No End." I've been listening to this collection of 14 wide-ranging songs for a week now and it has become a favourite.
Their harmonies remain strong, whether of the call and response type on Heavenly Table or when in the three-part manner of Chattanooga. The lead vocals, from Derek Johnson and Lisa Fuglie, are very strong; sometimes you can hear a little Dale Ann in Lisa's approach, as on Cool Cool Ride. Their instrumentation remains a palatable strength: it doesn't matter if they are tearing up a tune like Bullet Train, or getting a bit more reflective on a contemplative song such as If the World Were Filled With You, the choices made for mandolin fills and fiddle breaks and the like, are astute; everything sounds just right. On banjo, David Robinson is more than capable, and from what I can hear he has effortlessly slipped into the cast.
Monroe Crossing's bluegrass is dynamic, never getting too far from straight-ahead and the traditional inspired, while incorporating softer, contemporary sounds. They stretch things a bit, adding some swing and harmonica to Bread & Milk (although I could do without the concluding exclamation), and even their version of Doing My Time isn't a note-for-note replication of the original.
The band's songwriting just keeps getting better. Nine of the songs are originals, with another- the inspiring Hobos In the Roundhouse- coming from a friend of the group. The band continues to write songs that make sense for them- they don't try to recreate life in a little cabin while looking at the south end of a mule. They capture emotions and fragments of folks lives- the heartache of Rain Was Turning to Snow, for example- using images and metaphors that make sense for them. Whimsical home-spun philosophy is housed within Easy To Get Lost while the instrumental Cicada takes one on an imaginative journey that seemingly ends too soon.
Last Letter Home is performed to the highest standard, each lyric sung communicating the angst and doubt of the protagonist. As well, as they do on almost every release, a rock or blues standard is reinterpreted; previously, they've done songs from Etta James, Prince, Smokey Robinson, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, and others. This time Monroe Crossing takes on The Hollies' Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress, and they make the relic of the 70s 'fit' within a bluegrass context; it isn't a song I would have considered, but it works, and not just as a novelty.
What I don't understand is why the band has not yet 'broken through' with the bluegrass masses. Given their thirteen albums in as many years, you would think they would have found greater acclaim than they have. Seldom does one read about the group in the bluegrass publications and websites. Heck, until Matt Thompson's mandolin was stolen and recovered last week, I don't know if I've seen an extended mention of Monroe Crossing outside of press release-inspired notices.
I don't get it, why they haven't risen to the level of other groups. I scan the bluegrass charts, I read the reviews, and I listen to a lot of music. What I hear coming from Monroe Crossing- whether on the new album or on a selection of their previous releases- is every bit as strong, every bit as interesting- if not more so- than the music recently heard from outfits such as the Spinney Brothers, The Roys, American Drive, Balsam Range, and others- not knocking any of those; I'm just saying.
Hey, I don't know the band, I've never met them, communicated with them, or seen them live; I've only listened to the music. I have no particular investment in the band, and I don't know why I care at this time. They seem to have a fairly busy schedule of shows, tho' you don't see their name associated with the premier festivals and venues. Maybe it is as simple as Monroe Crossing is composed of a bunch of jerks, although that hasn't stood in the way of others' success.
I don't know. Perhaps they have a lousy publicist, although the albums manage to find their way to little ole me, way up here in the frozen north. Maybe it is because they have never recorded for one of the minor-major labels, or hired one of the formidable, name booking agents- "If you book the Slaw Taters, I'll take $300 off of the Front Cover Hustlers for ya!" It could be because they're from Minneapolis. Or that the female in the band isn't a size two. Maybe they dress too well, or dress too poorly. Have they sport too much facial hair, or not enough.
I don't know the reason why Monroe Crossing, despite releasing albums of increasingly fine execution and vision, albums whose quality has increased with each passing release, created by those whose talents are plainly evident to me, escape notice of the bluegrass tastemakers. Maybe they've been played on the satellite channel, but I'm confident that I've not heard them there. I've never seen their music on a chart, although it may have been- I don't survey all the, ummm... surveys. I've not seen feature articles on the high-traffic websites or publications- again, maybe I've missed them. I sure haven't heard their releases on very many year-end 'best of' lists or seen them nominated for the awards.
And I guess the same could be said for lots of bands, outfits who continue on, year after year, with little critical acclaim or fanfare. The difference, in my opinion, is that Monroe Crossing is, again in my opinion, actually deserving of increased attention. With most bands who never 'break through' there is a recognizable flaw- either they drink or carouse too much, don't take the job seriously, record shoddily produced discs filled with the most frequently covered standards just to sell them at the back tables, perhaps the vocals are a bit sharp...or dull, or the guitar player can't sing with the bassist...usually there is a reason one can identify.
I can't figure out what the problem is with Monroe Crossing. Maybe there isn't one, and I'll look the fool when "The Road Has No End" sells 20 000 copies and Heavenly Table takes its place alongside, or replaces, Tennessee Stud, Long Haul Trucking Man, Wolf Creek Pass, and Sugarfoot Rag on the charts.
Bands have their day, whether just in the garage, or locally, regionally, or nationally. Monroe Crossing seems content with their lot- heck, they keep going, don't they? But, I just think they are the complete package, ready to go. And they have been for a few years. They are a group whose music should be heard by more people, and with the release of "The Road Has No End," it has never been more apparent.
At least to me.