Audie Blaylock & Redline,
I'm Going Back to Old Kentucky
(Rural Rhythm, 2011)

Laurie Lewis,
Skippin' & Flyin'
(Spruce & Maple, 2011)

Among the great American musical innovators of the 20th century, Bill Monroe was born on Sept. 13, 1911, and died on Sept. 9, 1996. Few can be credited with inventing an entire genre, but Monroe, now known by the honorific "Father of Bluegrass," did just that. Like so many great inventions, bluegrass happened largely by accident. In the early days Monroe, thinking he had come up with a novel sound to give him a commercial edge over fellow Grand Ol' Opry performers, bitterly resented that other country pickers were "stealing" his idea. In due course he grew immensely proud of his role in bringing bluegrass -- now played by thousands of bands amateur and professional -- into the world. Predictably, the centennial of Monroe's birth has inspired a host of tribute discs.

Whatever tune they may be playing at any given moment, singer/guitarist Audie Blaylock & Redline, deservedly prominent on the current scene, are very much in the Monroe tradition of hard-driving, high-lonesome 'grass. On I'm Going Back to Old Kentucky Blaylock and associates resurrect a dozen songs composed by or associated with Monroe, bringing along some major guests, Monroe-influenced colleagues from the popular Del McCoury Band (McCoury himself, mandolinist son Ronnie, fiddler Jason Carter). If the results aren't strikingly unlike the Monroe originals, Blaylock makes an effort not to pull chestnuts from the tree. The title tune and "My Little Georgia Rose" have often been covered, but the rest are not overdone and are agreeable to hear in such good hands.

On Skippin' & Flyin', longtime Bay Area bluegrass multi-instrumentalist and folk musician Laurie Lewis finds another way to honor Monroe's contribution. Only two songs are directly from the Father's songbook: the original "Blue Moon of Kentucky" (probably Monroe's most famous song) and Joe Earle Stuart Jr.'s obscurity "A Lonesome Road." A hint of the sideways nature of Lewis's tribute gets delivered with the opening cut, "Old Ten Broeck," a variant of the 1870s Kentucky folk song that Monroe recorded as "Molly & Tenbrooks." (The album's title is a quote from it.) From there, Lewis proceeds to explore Monroe's influences in both Southeastern folk tradition and mid-century country, then looks forward with some of her own finely crafted compositions and modern-day balladeer Mark Erelli's haunting "Hartfordtown 1944," a true story about a fatal circus fire in East Hartford, Conn. And really, who could ever tire of Utah Phillips' "Going Away," which fittingly closes the show?

Nobody who's heard her needs to be told how capably Lewis does what she does. The 14 cuts (with perhaps one partial exception, noted presently) are little gems, sensitively arranged, played and sung. One particular marvel is "The Pharaoh's Daughter," her sequel to an Old Testament-based ballad, "Little Moses," associated with the Carter Family and covered since then by Joan Baez, Ralph Stanley, Robin & Linda Williams and others. I am pleasantly surprised that she has revived the little-known folksong "Fairy Beauty Bright," which some few of you may recall from Kathy & Carol's heart-stopping version on their fondly remembered 1965 Elektra album.

There's also "Carter's Blues," another piece (albeit under other titles) grounded in the English tradition. I am disappointed that Lewis elected to carry over the Carter Family's inappropriate, intrusive yodel. Even the Carters disdained their occasional, invariably lamentable detour into what they saw as vocal gimmickry. They complained that Ralph Peer, who discovered them and oversaw their recordings, forced it on them because Jimmie "Mississippi Blue Yodeler" Rodgers was selling so many records.

But this is a small misstep in an otherwise charming, creative celebration of bluegrass and the man who made it be.

music review by
Jerome Clark

28 January 2012

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