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Various Artists

The Best of King and Starday Bluegrass – 2005 (King)

Reviewed by Brad San Martin

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Though founded separately in 1943 and 1952 respectively, the King and Starday record labels have been housed under the same corporate umbrella since 1968. Together they were responsible for a wealth of incredible bluegrass and old time music, spanning some raucous mid-forties sessions featuring fiddler J.E. Mainer's for King to Starday's pivotal recordings from such modernists as J.D. Crowe and the New Grass Revival in 1973.

Despite the indisputable value of this material, it has been somewhat haphazardly reissued in the CD era. Reno and Smiley and the Stanley Brothers have received the deluxe boxed-set treatment, while other crucial artists have been represented by poorly-annotated, budget-line compilations or simply not at all. This four-disk set, along with great recent reissues of material from Buzz Busby and Hylo Brown, suggests that King is ready to give its catalog the reverent, respectful treatment that this wonderful music deserves.

The casual or newly-indoctrinated bluegrass listener will find this set a treasure trove, an ideal crash course in some of the music's biggest names, including the Stanleys, Reno and Smiley, J.D. Crowe, Red Allen, Jim and Jesse, Jimmy Martin (with Bobby Osborne) and the Country Gentlemen - each represented with at least two cuts apiece.

Lesser-known but influential figures like Busby, Brown and Vern Williams are here too, along with a generous selection from artists who should be better known. As far as rarities go, this doesn't include any of J.D. Crowe's Kentucky Mountain Boys 45s, but does introduce 2 intriguing, previously unreleased cuts from an aborted New Grass Revival album.

The wide range of artists featured will doubtlessly insure that even the most serious bluegrass student will find a surprise or two. The four CDs are complemented by an extensive photo-filled booklet with bios on each of the artists by bluegrass scholar Gary Reid, completing an essential portrait of one of bluegrass's most esteemed outlets.