Mike Compton at the Towne Crier

Mike Compton at the Towne Crier - photo by Dick BowdenMany know Mike Compton from the Nashville Bluegrass Band and John Hartford String Band, or from duet appearances. Many students have taken his mandolin classes. He IS the acknowledged Monroe-style master.

When I learned Mike was appearing solo April 21 at the Towne Crier in Pawling NY, I thought “How can he go on stage, stand on his hind feet and entertain for an hour and a half with just a mandolin??”

Now I know! For anyone who loves bluegrass mandolin, acoustic blues or watching a musician express himself with incredible mastery of his instrument, Mike Compton “solo” is riveting.

Long Island, NY traditional bluegrassers Eastbound Freight opened the show. Compton took the stage as they left, mandolin in one hand and mandola case in the other.  Without a breath or a word, he ripped into the old time fiddle number Tennessee Breakdown. With a serious “set” to his mouth, but fluid body language, he played “all bluegrass” on this obscure G number that hinted at Katy Hill.

After applause from the somewhat stunned audience, Mike took off on the blues number, How You Want Your Rolling Done? He mixed blues rhythm with Monroe-esque licks between the lines. Even the briefest licks were powerful and clear, but from a mighty slippery-looking left hand. Rocking and weaving, wearing a gentleman’s windowpane navy blue wool waistcoat, white shirt and new overalls, he played and sang into a single microphone, completely at ease. Mike normally wears a hat on stage, but he said after seeing the bald-headed men in the audience, he left his off in solidarity.

Mike commented on his Granddaddy and Bill Monroe, who were the same age. Regarding Monroe’s Frog on a Lily Pad, he said both men told the same folk tale about the little frogs talking to the big frogs, which Monroe said could be heard in this number. Mike “barrooped” his way through this tune in C, and sang the bass bull frog notes as he hit the G strings of his powerful Gilchrist mandolin.

Next was Hesitation Blues, in F. This song really showed off Mike’s voice – throaty or reedy as required. For a difficult mandolin key like F, it was noticeable he never played the bluegrass mandolin rhythm chop — not once. Instead he has developed a guitar-like strum that establishes the downbeat yet permits licks on the backbeat.

Reminiscing about John Hartford, Mike had the audience sing along as he reprised his performance of Bring Your Clothes Back Home from the John Hartford String Band’s CD salute to their late boss.

The mandolin set ended with the slimiest version of Monroe’s White Horse Breakdown ever. Explaining that White Horse was written by either Monroe or Kenny Baker, “depending on whose table you’re at,” Compton related the only time he “got” Monroe. At a Goodlettsville, TN jam session, the pickers played White Horse and Monroe asked “er, do you know who wrote that number right there?” to which Compton sassed back “Yessir — Kenny Baker!” He said Monroe “balled up his fists” for a few seconds until Bill’s lady friend cooled him off with laughter.

Switching to a gorgeous Duff mandola, Mike played and sang emotionally on Midnight Hour Blues. This mandola has a beautiful voice, sort of a more robust version of Rabon Delmore’s tenor guitar.

Next came a tantalizing instrumental hinting at Dusty Miller, Wheel Hoss and Arkansas Traveler — Monroe’s Reelfoot Reel, featuring Uncle Pen’s bow rhythm in Mike’s pick. He said playing a Monroe number on mandola makes his left hand hurt because of the long reaches with his pinkie.

Back to the Gilchrist mandolin, Mike sang Alabama Baby from the Armstrong Twins (Lloyd and Floyd). This slid effortlessly into one of Monroe’s four “boogie” instrumentals, Honky Tonk Swing, from the 1940s Victor recordings. His E string downstrokes sounded like icicles cracking… what tone and power! A perfect match of a musician and his instrument.

Roxana Waltz was followed by the audience joining in to sing the last line of each verse of Sitting on Top of the World.   Mike did this number on tenor guitar with John Hartford, and recorded it on the Nashville Bluegrass Band’s last CD, but this was different with a plethora of blurry left hand licks while banging out the downbeat with the right. His singing was “lusty” — like the dirtiest old blues man.

The Old Mountaineer was paced with spooky deliberation. Mike said this is one of his favorites because of Monroe’s left hand slides, which Mike said are actually “sleight of hand.” Yeah! He explained that sliding is the mandolinist’s emulation of the fretless noting of old time fiddlers.

Back to blues again, Mike bounced out I’m Talking About You.The mandolin fans were transported to downstroke heaven – a brilliant demonstration of Monroe’s meanest licks applied to the blues. Compton was really feeling the power.

How Long How Long was plaintively sung — totally natural, unforced — not the least bit faked or affected. Mike’s voice should be as well known as his picking.

Responding to a request, Mike tuned into cross-keyed A for his composition Halley’s Hornpipe, named for his daughter. This sounded like old time fiddling, slightly crooked, and played at a danceable pace. It morphed seamlessly into a super-rhythmic closer with Uncle Pen’s Jenny Lynn.

Eastbound Freight helped close out the evening. Compton stood back chopping rhythm during I Wonder Where You Are Tonight until it was his turn. What followed was the finest “salute” to Monroe this writer has ever witnessed – a total stutter step, falling downstairs, off-time, meter-less break calling up the weirdest of Monroe licks.   Breathtaking is the only word.   Mike really opened the fire hydrant.

Go see Mike Compton’s solo show and prepare to be gobsmacked. There are powerful people in every walk of life. Mike Compton is the General George Patton of the mandolin.

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About the Author

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden is a VERY traditional bluegrass picker and fan from New England, who makes occasional contributions to Bluegrass Today representing the old timers' viewpoints.