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Five Albums for the Bill Monroe Centennial

Donald Teplyske  |  August 27, 2011

Over the past two weeks I've shared a number of songs to which I'll be listening as we move closer to the Bill Monroe Centennial of September 13. This week I would like to offer up five albums that you might want to explore (or re-explore) as the bluegrass community celebrates a hundred years of Bill Monroe.

5. Audie Blaylock and Redline "Going Back to Old Kentucky" (Rural Rhythm) As a salute to Bill Monroe, there is little to argue here. It comes in a little light at less than 35 minutes, but a quality set of songs and performances it is.

I don't have the song notes unfortunately as I purchased a digital version of the album, but that's okay. Redline forms the instrumental core of the album, and Blaylock sings a bunch, much as he did on the Jimmy Martin tribute of several years back. I believe my favourite tune might be I Was Left on the Street, but every moment sounds quite spectacular. That's some McCoury singing on On the Old Kentucky Shore and it sounds five-kinds of beautiful. I really appreciated the song selection.

I found that I simply enjoyed listening to the album; worrying about whether that was Bobby Osborne singing 'this' or if that was Jason Carter playing 'that' got in the way. Put it on, turn it up, and drift away.

4. When I started envisioning this series of pieces celebrating the lead-up the September 13 and the Bill Monroe Centennial, I had never heard of this second album. I'm glad I found it. "Tribute to Bill Monroe" (K-Tel, and available digitally) was recorded by Billy and Terry Smith in 1996 and three tracks featuring Mr. Monroe- Mule Skinner Blues, Blue Moon of Kentucky, and Walk Softly on this Heart of Mine- are reportedly his final sessions.

Also featuring Mike Compton and Charlie Cushman, this is a lively (if brief) set that plays things pretty close to the tradition. Ten songs, none unexpected: highlights include Jerusalem Ridge, Put My Little Shoes Away, and Wicked Path of Sin as well as the three selections featuring Monroe.

Terry Smith is likely the better known of the two brothers- he's the singing bass player with The Grascals- but Billy Smith seems to have his own soulful sound and I've added his live album to My Wish list; I'm not sure who is singing what, and it doesn't really matter to me: the music rocks in all the ways bluegrass should. There is something quite impactful hearing Mr. Monroe record and sing Blue Moon of Kentucky one last time.

3. Monroe Crossing "Plays the Music of Bill Monroe" (Self-released) 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.

With appropriate cover art and packaging, detailed notes that will assist the neophyte, excellent performances and more than a little of their own personality mixed in, Monroe Crossing's latest has much to recommend it.

2. "True Life Blues: The Songs of Bill Monroe" (Sugar Hill Records) recorded just before and released immediately following Mr. Monroe's death won the Best Bluegrass Recording Grammy for 1997. Coordinated, produced, and mothered each step of the way by Todd Phillips, this 17-track album set the standard that I don't think any multi-artist tribute set has met since.

Ronnie McCoury and Mike Compton handle much of the mando on the album, giving consistent performances that fit perfectly with the tone of the project. John Reischman, Dave Grisman, Chris Thile, Mike Marshall, Roland White, Tim O'Brien, and Greg Garing, and Sam Bush drop in for single appearances with their mandolins.

Vocally, Alan O'Bryant starts things off with a wonderful version of Molly and Tenbrooks while Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis' version of Used to Be has long been a favourite. I'm On My Way Back to the Old Home, featuring Del and Ronnie McCoury, Vasser Clements, Craig Smith, and Phillips and Can't You Hear Me Callin' (with the same line-up excepting Flux enters the picture) are about perfect with Pat Enright's lead vocal work on Heavy Traffic Ahead close behind. Tim O'Brien completists won't want to miss his take of Highway of Sorrow.

1. Bill Monroe- Anthology (Universal) In my research, I found that this great two-disc set of 50 Monroe tracks appears to be out-of-print in Canada but is available from and digitally. Some (most?) would suggest a collection of Columbia recordings from the late-40s as the set to listen to this month, but as much as I enjoy and cherish those recordings, it is the Bill Monroe 1950s and 1960s sides that appeal most to me.

For less than $20, with "Anthology" one gets not only a couple hours of timeless music but as fine a set of notes as one might want within a standard release; Mary Katherine Aldin's writing is informative and accessible. Most of the songs one associates with post-Scruggs and Flatt Monroe are included as the set stretches from 1950 to 1981. A bluegrass 'who's who' weaves in and out: Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements, Carter Stanley, Sonny Osborne, Charlie Cline, Bobby Hicks, Bessie Lee Mauldin, Joe Stuart, Kenny Baker, Jack Cooke, Buddy Spicher, Lonnie Hoppers, Bill Keith, Del McCoury, Benny Williams, Richard Greene Lamar Grier, James Monroe, Peter Rowan, and Roland White among them.

Closing the set and written and recorded 15 years before his death, My Last Days on Earth is a bit more elaborate than most familiar Monroe recordings what with sampled sea bird noises, a modern-string section, and Nashvillian background singers; still, it is a haunting song and- in my opinion- one of Monroe's finest.

There you go- my suggestions for listening this month fully realizing your thoughts might be quite different. Both Rebel and Rounder have recently released Monroe tribute collections featuring music culled from their vaults, but I haven't heard those yet. There are many other Monroe tributes out there with the concert recording "The Legend Lives On" being one of the best, but I had to limit myself and I hope these five albums include something you are encouraged to seek out.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee Bluegrass.

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