Before it fell into the nimble hands of Bill Monroe, the mandolin was a European anachronism, a dusty parlor instrument with no American identity. When melded with Monroe's mix of blues, Celtic fiddle tunes and sentimental pop, the mandolin became bluegrass' calling card. Its ragged tremolos are now as instantly identifiable with all things high and lonesome.
This rich and rewarding two-CD set celebrates the mandolin's pervasive role in bluegrass. Producers David Grisman and Ronnie McCoury selected a group of mandolinists who while obviously influenced by Monroe's model stretched the capabilities of the instrument. Among the participants, Ricky Skaggs and Sam Bush are probably the most recognized, having brought the instrument into mainstream country and folk music. Grisman has the most distinct harmonic vocabulary, drawn from jazz and Latin musics. Jesse McReynolds' technical innovations, including cross-picking (a simulation of Earl Scruggs' banjo roll), continue to astonish, decades after their development.
The program is very well-conceived, and avoids boredom by providing a mix of solos, duets, trios and full-ensemble tunes. Frank Wakefield's "Miss Izzie" and "Catnip" are the most idiosyncratic, drawing on classical and bluegrass influences. Skaggs turns the vintage "Cumberland Gap" into a rousing, up-tempo solo feature. The ensemble tracks, especially McReynold's "Dixie Hoedown," are surprisingly coherent and allow for easy comparison of the players' various and distinct styles. The packaging and recording is superb, while the mix is clean and clear. Detailed liner notes outline the solo order and channel placement of all of the soloists. Grisman and McCoury's goal of a definitive bluegrass mandolin compendium is perfectly realized.