Celebrating the Big Mon

Jon Weisberger, September 2000

At the end of "Big Mon," a new collection by Ricky Skaggs and a host of high-powered guests celebrating the music of Bill Monroe, a mass of fiddlers, mandolin players and guitarists take a spirited romp through the title track, one of the Father of Bluegrass's most famous instrumentals.

To anyone familiar with bluegrass festivals, it inevitably brings to mind the finales many of them end with, in which all of the artists who appeared gather on stage for a closing number.

"It kind of reminded me of one of those big super jams at the end of the festival," Skaggs agrees with a chuckle. "I used to see Bill grab 10 fiddlers and all the mandolin players. 'Everybody get up here for the bluegrass finale,' he'd say, and I could just picture that when we were recording it. We thought about doing it with even more people, there were quite a few other fiddle players who we also called, and it was kind of a matter who was available. And with the limited space we had in the studio, there weren't enough headphones to go around, so we cut that with no headphones, just live. I'm really happy with the way that it turned out."

In fact, Skaggs - who, like Monroe, has been honored for his achievements by both his bluegrass and country music peers - is happy with the way the album as a whole turned out.

Conceived of shortly after Monroe passed away four years ago, the CD brings together well-known performers from bluegrass, country and beyond to perform songs written by or associated with the bluegrass master. Artists involved include Bruce Hornsby, Dolly Parton, The Whites, Patty Loveless, John Fogerty, Travis Tritt, Joan Osborne, Steve Wariner and Charlie Daniels.

Though Skaggs, who first played with Monroe in 1959 at 5 to sing the Osbornes' "Ruby," agrees that one important effect of such a talent roster will be to introduce new audiences to bluegrass, he says that wasn't his primary intent.

"We knew it would happen with these artists. We knew that when I involved John Fogerty and Bruce Hornsby and Joan Osborne, I was going to have an audience that I had never had before, that bluegrass hasn't had before. But that's not what we set out to do. What we basically set out to do was just to make a great record that showed Mr. Bill as a singer and as a musician, but especially something that I feel he's never really been appreciated for: as a songwriter. Not every song on the record is one that he wrote, but every one is a song that he chose to sing, and I think that's also a sign of what a great genius musician he was, to know what kind of song to choose."

That's a point critical to understanding the depth of Monroe's influence, Skaggs argues.

"When he came to Nashville, not only was he carrying a couple of weapons - one being the mandolin, one being his voice - but man! That ink pen he had in his pocket was a tremendous weapon. And so he was a triple threat when it came to writing and performing and being a musician as well. I think that's what turned on the whole rockabilly bunch - of course it wasn't even called rockabilly in those days -- what he did with 'Rocky Road Blues' and songs like that that he was putting together, it was turning on a whole new group of young people like Buddy Holly and Elvis and Carl Perkins. Carl and I talked about that many times, about his involvement and his influence on that community of musicians who were learning how to play."

To convey the profound impact Big Mon (he was dubbed that by band members in the 1950's) had, Skaggs decided early on that he would have to work with each guest to find not only the right song, but the right arrangement as well.

In some cases, like Dolly Parton ("Cry, Cry Darlin'"), that meant straight-ahead bluegrass - and with Travis Tritt ("My Little Georgia Rose"), it also meant featuring the Georgia country-rocker picking his own banjo solo.

With other artists, though, there are considerable departures from bluegrass, appropriate enough for a musician whose influence extended so widely.

"When I talked to John Fogerty," Skaggs recalls, "I said, 'look, I really want this to be a John Fogerty recording, I want it to sound like you doing a Bill Monroe song. So if you want to cut it bluegrass, we'll cut it bluegrass, because your voice is going to sound like you anyway. But if you want to cut it in a rock-and-roll, a Creedence kind of sound, then that's what I want to do too. So, you have total freedom to cut it any way you want to cut it.'"

"He said, 'well, let me give that some thought.' He called me back in a couple of weeks, and said, 'I think I want to cut it with a band, I think I want to use a drummer - maybe a light rock-and-roll band, a drummer, and you play rhythm guitar, and I'll play the electric.' And he said, 'I'm hearing a slide guitar of some kind. I don't want a pedal steel guitar, but I'm not sure that Jerry Douglas with the lap steel is what I'm hearing either.' So I said, 'man, have I got the guy for you.' And he'd never heard of (long-time Hank Snow steel guitarist) Kayton Roberts and had never met him before, so to see those two meet for the first time, that was something in itself. It was a great combination of musicians."

One of the more surprising contributions comes from pop/rock singer Joan Osborne, who duets with Skaggs on one of Monroe's starkest tales of romantic loss, "On The Old Kentucky Shore."

Skaggs recounts the way it came about: "I guess it was four years ago, right after Mr. Monroe passed away, that my partner Stan Strickland and I were at the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame show, and we happened to be sitting at Joan's manager's table. We were all sitting there together, and Stan and I were talking about this album, making notes and all that kind of stuff, and her manager just overheard us. He said, 'well, I represent Joan Osborne and I know Joan loves bluegrass, she's a big fan of Bill Monroe's, and keep her in mind if you do this thing.'"

"So, we sent an invitation to her, and she called back and said 'I really want to do it,' so it was just a matter of working out timing. To me, she sounds like a Hazel Dickens or Jean Ritchie, just an old mountain woman sound. It doesn't sound like she's from Louisville, Kentucky, it sounds like she's from Elkhorn City or Whitesburg or somewhere like that - I mean, she's really got that mountain thing. And boy, she tracked with me, we sound like brother and sister singing. It was really awesome, and it just blew my wife Sharon away when I brought a rough mix home. She said 'I just can't believe that, you guys just met today?' It was pretty amazing."

Indeed, that phrase could serve as a motto for "Big Mon" as a whole.

"Bill Monroe was a real hard-headed, stubborn man," recalls Buck White of the Whites, who first met him in 1957. "Nice fellow, but you didn't aggravate him. There's no telling how many people he influenced over the years."

And while that's doubtless true, a listen to the breadth of artists and styles on "Big Mon" will give anyone, old Monroe fan or new, a small idea of how many it must be.

" I'm really hoping that people will see Bill Monroe in a totally different light on this record," Skaggs says, "that it won't just be his version of 'Blue Moon of Kentucky' or his version of 'Close By' or his version of 'Used To Be', that people will really listen to it for the performances and for the artistic part of it. And I hope they'll feel that this was a man we really missed this first go around, that he really should be appreciated as one of the first singer-songwriter-musicians to come to Nashville."

Photo of Bill Monroe and Ricky Skaggs (right) by Morello/Ghergia

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com