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Putumayo Presents Bluegrass

Donald Teplyske  |  July 2, 2012

Various Artists "Putumayo Presents Bluegrass" Putumayo

Assembling a thirteen track sampler to represent an entire genre of music must be a challenge. Beyond the obvious intricacies of licensing of songs from a variety of labels, there is the equally significant difficulty of selecting the just right tracks to represent the various permeations of the music while creating an amiable flow conducive to repeated listening.

Putumayo has been releasing high-quality compilations of various world and roots music for over a decade. I recall volunteering (unsolicited, it should be mentioned) some years ago to consult should Putumayo ever wish to put together a bluegrass compilation.

I know I would have suggested a Canadian band or three to be included, perhaps John Reischman & the Jaybirds, The Foggy Hogtown Boys, The Spinney Brothers, or even The Breakmen. For additional international flavour, I would have suggested a song from a European outfit such as Red Wine, or perhaps Naill Toner and something from Lilly Drumeva. As well, I may well have suggested a few American acts who I consider non-mainstream examples of exemplary modern bluegrass: James Reams, The Earl Brothers, Laurie Lewis, or Kathy Kallick.

However, I wasn't asked to consult on this project and those elements are missing from what is still a fairly enjoyable and pretty catholic survey of bluegrass. Rightly or wrongly, by chance or design, the first- and second-generations of the music are ignored on "Putumayo Presents Bluegrass." Rather, the modern rendering of the music is examined, if only in a cursory fashion. Still, any bluegrass compilation that includes both mainstream populist artists such as Alison Krauss & Union Station as well as veterans including David Grisman, Peter Rowan, the Seldom Scene and Sam Bush alongside relatively unheralded names such as Frank Solivan, James Alan Shelton, and Andrea Zonn deserves a listen.

My frustration with this album is fairly apparent. For every solitary selection of pure brilliance- such as the inclusion of James Alan Shelton's (Ralph Stanley's long time lead guitar player) beautifully picked take of Shady Grove- a song that has been part of Appalachian and bluegrass music for as long as either has existed- there is an inclusion that makes the listener wonder, Why? For example, it isn`t that I don`t enjoy the music of Crooked Still (New Railroad) or the Seldom Scene (Boots of Spanish Leather). It is just that a) Crooked Still isn't really a bluegrass band, no matter how large your tent may be and b) the Scene have so many more important recordings than this album track from 2000.

Further, the compilation doesn't sound or appear very timely. The lead track from AKUS, Every Time You Say Goodbye, hails from twenty years ago; a timeless recording certainly, but one questions its place within a 2012 set. Similarly, the Peter Rowan selection, his rendition of Man of Constant Sorrow, is from 1994. David Grisman and Jerry Garcia's lovely interpretation of Jackaroo, which is absolutely essential (folk music) in my mind, was released some 15 years ago. All of these songs have their place, but a fresher piece of music from AKUS as well as other bands- The Special Consensus, Rhonda Vincent, Junior Sisk, David Davis & the Warrior River Boys, or Dale Ann Bradley- to suggest but five- might be more telling of the modern state of the music.

While my bluegrass collection is more extensive than many, it isn't by any means comprehensive. Still, outside selections from Frank Solivan, a reworking of Kate Wolf's Across the Great Divide, Andrea Zonn (New Night Dawning, which isn`t bluegrass anymore than it is progressive jazz), and Town Mountain (the very impressive Diggin' on the Mountainside) I already have these tracks on my bluegrass shelves. This tells me that the overview of bluegrass presented is rather limited, and isn't really targeted at the bluegrass music buying and festival attendee aficionado.

So, who will "Putumayo Presents Bluegrass" appeal to? Not sure. It isn't comprehensive enough for anyone who is a regular consumer of the music to shell out fifteen bucks. It isn't really representative enough of 'bluegrass' to serve as an introduction for the neophyte. It may serve as an impulse purchase for someone picking up their organic vegetables or fair-trade coffee at the specialty shop. However, compared to other Putumayo sets- classics such as "Music from the Coffee Lands", "Mali to Memphis," "Cuba," and "Arabic Groove," this one falls short- at least for me.

Coming in at fifty minutes, "Putumayo Presents Bluegrass" is a satisfying listen. But it could have been so much more. Had the compiler looked beyond Sugar Hill, Rounder, Pinecastle, and Compass- that is, ventured away from the familiar and sought out additional independently released projects- he may have found a rich bounty of recordings to consider. These treasures may have added additional depth and texture to this review of bluegrass.

I'm pleased that Putumayo decided bluegrass warranted a place in their catalog. I only wish they had brought their usual global focus to the project.

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