Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys, |
Live: Volume 1
(Copper Creek, 2001)
Let's get the bare facts out of the way first: if you're not aware of it, Bill Monroe is considered the Father of Bluegrass, he had a career spanning seven decades, he influenced everyone from Elvis Presley to Jerry Garcia, he was considered the greatest patriarch of country music in general, and God Himself wishes that he could play mandolin and sing like Bill Monroe did.
Now maybe you'll know why Monroe is so important to us roots and bluegrass people, and why any appearance of unreleased material (of which I suspect there's still a ton) is equivalent to a glimpse of the Holy Grail. Rural Rhythm and Copper Creek have just co-released the first two-CD set in a series of Monroe's live recordings at Bean Blossom, the country music park that he founded, and it's a real treat for any bluegrass fan. The recording quality itself is splendid, since these tapes were made in 1990 for possible inclusion in the documentary, Bill Monroe: Father of Bluegrass Music, released in 1993, even though the performances are far from perfect, as you'll hear on the very first track. The vocal balance is a bit off, and the harmonies aren't as clean as they might be, but the imperfections and spontaneity are part of the charm of this release. The presence is utterly real, and you can hear the musicians moving to and from the mike as they solo and sing. I've never heard a live recording of Monroe's band with better ambience.
Would that the initial performances were as strong. Tater Tate's solo during Tom Ewing's rendition of "Willie Moore" is pretty ragged, but Mister Bill proves that he still has the vocal chops to do "Muleskinner Blues." Unfortunately, the voice sounds a bit worn on "Kentucky Waltz," and Tater Tate fares no better. Things get better, though. "Southern Flavor" proves a winner, with Monroe's great mandolin sounding as fine as ever, and the tune itself, modal and mountainy, is a great one. The vocal blend improves mightily on "The Old Cross Road," and they pick the devil out of "Wheel Hoss." As for "Uncle Pen," I can't conceive of Monroe ever doing a second-rate performance of this song. The band tears "Shenandoah Breakdown" apart, and their vocal harmonies are nice and tight on "It's Mighty Dark to Travel." Monroe delightfully barks his way through "Dog House Blues," and "Rawhide" is, as always, an instrumental gem, probably my favorite of all of Monroe's mandolin showcases.
Disc 2 starts off with a strong "I'm On My Way Back to the Old Home," and among the other highlights are "Come Hither to Go Yonder," which is filled with those "ancient tones," a great "Cryin' Holy Unto the Lord," and the seldom heard instrumental, "Northern White Clouds." Monroe does a grand job on the moving "Old, Old House," and a few other old favorites like "Dusty Miller" and "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms" make appearances. There's even a rendition of "Happy Birthday" for a lucky "Becky" in the crowd.
The CDs recreate the Bean Blossom experience perfectly, with all of Monroe's asides to the crowd and their reactions. It's a great listening experience, although stretching the music out to two discs is questionable, as the two total just under 75 minutes, the length of a fully loaded single CD. Still, the overall package is quite nice, with a 24-page booklet loaded with photos and a great essay about Monroe by Larry Nager, including many quotations from people who worked with Big Mon. And that color photo of Monroe on the front of the booklet is just as I recall seeing him at many festivals in the '90s. Live: Volume 1 is a priceless souvenir of an absolute giant of a musician, and I look forward to the next chapter.
[ by Chet Williamson ]