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Five Songs for the Bill Monroe Centennial

Donald Teplyske  |  August 15, 2011

September 13 marks the centennial of Bill Monroe's birth. The Father of Bluegrass, born in 1911 in Rosine, Kentucky, passed away four days short of his 85th birthday. 2011 has seen much talk about the Bill Monroe Centennial with several projects being released to celebrate, honour, and- frankly, in select cases- cash-in on the occasion.

As well, we've all heard about the movie that is in production, and I'm told on good authority that Del McCoury has nailed the vocals for the project. Heck, a group of Edmonton-based musicians are even putting together a Bill Monroe Tribute band to mark the centennial and I'm sure others are doing similarly.

This month I want to do my bit to celebrate the musical legacy of Bill Monroe, a man I missed seeing live. I've seen many of the bluegrass greats- Earl Scruggs, Hazel Dickens, Doc Watson (okay, Doc ain't bluegrass), Curly Seckler, Lynn Morris, Tony Rice, Mac Wiseman, Ralph Stanley, Jimmy Martin, J. D. Crowe, Del, Alison Krauss, and more- in concert and have cherished those moments; still, I'll never forgive myself for missing Monroe on his last Canadian appearance in 1995.

Therefore, my only connection to Mr. Monroe is through recorded music. I have a deep passion for his music and listen to it regularly even when I'm knee deep in projects requiring my attention. In my opinion, if one doesn't appreciate Bill Monroe's music but professes a love for bluegrass they are missing out on the full portrait of the sound. Monroe was and is bluegrass. Full stop.

Today I offer up the first five of ten songs for Bill Monroe listening this month, songs that celebrate Mr. Monroe's life, music, and heritage. This isn't a list of essential songs. This isn't a list of the best songs or the latest tributes. Instead I present these songs as selections to set the tone as we move toward Mr. Monroe's centennial.

10. Let's start this off right, with a Bill Monroe song. Recently I found a copy of the Time-Life "The Stanley Brothers: The Definitive Collection (1947-1966)" box set and near the end of disc one I was reminded of the brilliance and versatility not only of Monroe's material but of the Stanley Brothers. Their rendition of Blue Moon of Kentucky, recorded in 1954 for Mercury Records, is absolutely stunning. I recall hearing only one band having attempted this arrangement in concert and am unaware of recording groups having gone down this path although I'm sure they have. What I love about this killer, lively version is that it deviates entirely from Monroe's waltz delivery without falling into the rock 'n' roll world of Elvis Presley; the first fifteen seconds, which borders of doo-wop, is completely unlike anything I've heard in the Stanley canon. That Monroe himself suggested that the brothers Stanley take on the song adds to its allure. Available on "Angel Band: The Classic Mercury Recordings."

9. I tear up listening to music pretty easily. Give me a well-executed coal mining disaster song and I'll blubber. I didn't tear up at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville- although I came close- but I did the first time I heard Robin and Linda Williams' wonderful Maybelle's Guitar and Monroe's Mandolin. Every time I hear the song I am taken back to the darkened museum and the wonder I felt as I stood before those two storied instruments. "Standing there together like they were next of kin," indeed. Tim O'Brien's mandolin style evokes a time before Nudie suits and flashy cowboy boots, as does Linda's lived-in voice. Beautiful. Available on "Buena Vista," Red House Records.

8. Written and performed by Tom T. Hall, Bill Monroe for Breakfast recalls slices of rural life that most of us can only imagine. I grew up hearing the morning farm report between the hits of the day on the radio, but the 'star' of the programming was the country music DJ; things were different in the late 40s and 50s. In the early days of bluegrass, the 15- to 30-minute radio show featuring the stars of the music didn't pay much but allowed the artists an opportunity to sell their song books and advance coming performances. Imagine starting every day listening to live Bill Monroe! The musicianship on this song is perfectly homey for the theme, nothing too fancy with some nice fiddle holding things together. A great line: "Mama loved his singing and daddy loved to hear him play." Available on Tom T. Hall's "Home Grown" which may well be out of print.

7. Gary Brewer and the Kentucky Ramblers' Rosine, Kentucky- Home of Bluegrass Music is one of several songs that tip their collective hats toward Bill Monroe. It isn't perfect with the vocals buried a bit in the mix, but the harmony vocals are as heartfelt as the sentiments behind them. There are lots of Monroe tribute songs, and I'll highlight more of them in coming days, but this is one I always return to. Available on Gary Brewer's "Memories of Home" album.

6. There is a YouTube video of Del McCoury singing In Despair recently at DelFest, but for my money Dale Ann Bradley's version tops that one, good as it may be. From her forthcoming "Somewhere South of Crazy" album, the song was chosen for the project without consideration of the Monroe Centennial. That makes sense knowing what I do about Dale Ann- there is little manufactured about her; she's as mountain as rock, entirely natural. That voice: that Patty Loveless co-opted the phrase Mountain Soul before Dale did is just plain wrong. "You made me forget about all the others, you made me forget about all my past" is just the beginning of it; when Dale sings "But a broken heart will keep on crying, I know you know I am in despair," you can hear the life experience in every syllable. 2 minutes and 42 seconds of pure bluegrass bliss highlighted by the best voice from the female side of the bluegrass church singing with Steve Gulley. Mike Sumner's banjo parts are no small feat.

I'll have five more songs next week and then some albums to consider as we near September 13. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee Bluegrass.

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