Fervor Coulee Bluegrass Blog
Five More Songs for the Bill Monroe Centennial
Donald Teplyske | August 22, 2011
Last week I posted five song suggestions for readers who may want to get into the positive spirits surrounding the Bill Monroe Centennial. As you likely know, September 13 marks the 100th anniversary of 'the father of bluegrass' music's birth.
Today I propose five additional songs honouring Bill Monroe and his memory. There is no shortage of tribute songs available and there are even more covers of Monroe standards; as I previously wrote, I am not suggesting that these songs should be considered 'the best' of anything. They are simply five, well six, more songs that I think go a long way toward illustrating the influence Bill Monroe has had on the music he developed.
5. Phil Leadbetter is the only musician not named Jerry Douglas or Rob Ickes to have been awarded the IBMA's Dobro Player of the Year statuette. On his enjoyable 1997 album "Philibuster," which Leadbetter had recently released the first time I was fortunate to hear him play live with J. D. Crowe & the New South, Uncle Phil plays the heck out of Big Mon, one of Monroe's most popular instrumentals. Originally recorded in 1958, Leadbetter's update of Big Mon doesn't stray too far from the original; things are stretched out for an additional minute- allowing for more breaks to be taken by the likes of Richard Bennett (guitar), Scott Vestal (banjo), and the man most frequently awarded Mr. Monroe's mandolin crown, Ronnie McCoury as well as Leadbetter- but the spirit is the same. By recording Monroe's song with such obvious passion and not reinventing it, Leadbetter and his studio pals pay the master the ultimate tribute; of note, Rickie Simpkins' fiddle playing on this one is mighty powerful.
4. A pair of fine tributes to Bill Monroe was released in 1998 when Butch Baldassari produced his excellent "New Classics for Bluegrass Mandolin" album. Baldassari included on this album two tunes that relate to Monroe. The first has been a personal favourite for many years; King Wilkie is named after a much-loved horse of Mr. Monroe's and this jaunty instrumental- featuring the expertise of Kenny Smith (guitar), Steve Huber (banjo), Missy Raines (bass), and Randy Howard (fiddles)- has brightened many a listen since I first heard it a decade or so back. I'm told it is based on Kentucky Mandolin and one can clearly hear echoes of that atmospheric Monroe tune all over this one.
And that is where I might have stopped had I not, in researching this piece, discovered the next song.
Even more stunning than King Wilkie is the 8 minute masterpiece It's Rainin' the Blues...for Bill Monroe on which Baldassari fairly plays his heart out, carrying a melody that evokes everything that I think of when I consider Bill Monroe. It is moody, and bluesy, and altogether thoughtful and pensive. The other-worldly vocals of Sonya Isaacs on this number are not like anything in bluegrass and sound beautiful and appropriate on this elegy for Monroe.
Much like the next song, King Wilkie took me to places I had not anticipated and that includes a deeper appreciation for Butch Baldassari, who died in early 2009.
3. One of the more fascinating aspects of bluegrass and traditional music are the paths down which songs can take you. One such song is Bill Monroe's The First Whippoorwhill. In doing just a little bit of Googlearch, I found a number of versions of the song and became a little confused when I started looking at James Reams & the Barnstormers "Barnstormin'" album because the song is attributed to Scott Wiseman and Bradley Kincaid. I found a mention of Thomas Jefferson, and then I found the name Harrison Millard; it was around then that I discovered I was researching two completely different songs.
Not only did this journey take me back to the bluegrass shelf to listen to a little James Reams, it allowed me a reminder of the importance of not jumping the gun when writing. Plus, I found mention of a Peter Rowan album I'm going to have to investigate this week.
Over the past decade, John Reischman & the Jaybirds have become increasing popular in western North America. They are a great band and are always adding new material to their repertoire. When Monroe-style mandolin players are mentioned, John Reischman's name is often forgotten and this may be because he does so many different things with his playing.
What I perhaps most appreciate about Reischman is his humility in playing- someone recently recalled that Reischman has been known to focus on improving his chop, something players of his calibre may simply take for granted. On the Jaybirds' latest recording "Vintage and Unique," the quintet takes Bill Monroe's The First Whippoorwill for a spin. Trisha Gagnon and Jim Nunally's voices- which always sound wonderful together- are especially beautiful on this lonesome number and at the 1:55 mark you hear some of the loveliest mandolin you can ever hope to hear; what is most remarkable is that Reischman performs similarly on every song he and The Jaybirds have recorded.
2. I purposely didn't include on this list the many fine songs that were written and released in the months and years immediately following Bill Monroe's death in 1996- songs like The Bluegrass King (Has Gone to Heaven) or They've Laid the Master Down or even Is the Grass Any Bluer. Those are good songs but I wanted this list to observe Monroe's life, not mourn his passing. I have made an exception on this second last song because it remains my favourite Bill Monroe tribute number and it does indeed celebrate the power Monroe held over those who adored him, even from afar. Ultimately, it is a celebration of a legacy that will not be soon forgotten.
At Blueberry Bluegrass (Stony Plain, AB, Canada) in 1997, David Mosher performed this song each and every time he took to the stage throughout the weekend. While such repetition could become tiresome, on this occasion Mosher performed the song again and again by request. If I recall correctly, Michigan's Mosher wrote Bringing Daddy Home after seeing Mr. Monroe at some of his final festival appearances.
The lyrics reflect the dignity that I always associate with Bill Monroe and it still brings tears to my eyes almost every time I hear it. The song is vaguely bluegrass with more than a hint of folk within it; it is a stellar performance musically and lyrically: "The old man was a little tired as they led him to the stage; His footsteps were unsteady, and the footlights showed his age; But his boys were there to help him on, they'd get him through the show...and when the last song is over, they'll be bringing daddy home."
We, the true believers, can relate to this song as we do few others. Available on David Mosher's "Sycamore Tree."
1. Niall Toner's William Smith Monroe is undoubtedly the finest Monroe tribute to come my way this year and is one several years in the writing. Ireland's Toner was originally inspired to write the song while wandering Jerusalem Ridge and then struggled for quite some time to find the right words to flesh out the song. Toner is no stranger to writing amazing songs inspired by Bill Monroe; two of them, Bill Monroe's Mandolin and The Master's Resting Place, were highlights of his brilliant debut album several years back. With William Smith Monroe he has outdone himself.
The song creates a mood that is both reverential and chilling while touching on some of the notable moments from Mr. Monroe's life. Quite simply, a wonderful homage to The Father of Bluegrass. William Smith Monroe is available as a CD single from the usual digital outlets.
I hope you are inspired to search out some of the songs I've recommended. Happy listening; I'll return next week with some albums appropriate for celebrating Bill Monroe's Centennial.