Paying tribute to Bill Monroe with a recording of his songs presents a different challenge than it would for any other musician I can think of. The prime mover behind the creation of bluegrass music, his output forms more of the standard repertoire of his genre than, say, Louis Armstrong’s does for jazz or Robert Johnson’s for the blues. Even though his songbook is vast, there are few little-known gems to dust of as there would be in any other songwriter’s oeuvre.
Several artists have taken the centenary of Monroe’s birth to take on the tribute challenge, and three of the best I’ve heard so far come from Audie Blaylock & Redline, David Grisman, and the Del McCoury Band.
Blaylock, known for the last decade or so as one of the most powerful voices in bluegrass whether supporting Rhonda Vincent or fronting Redline, takes the most straightforward approach of the three on I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky (Rural Rhythm), simply applying his own style to a dozen Monroe cuts.
That style is hard-driving and crisp, propelled by Russ Carson’s banjo and Blaylock’s guitar, the arrangements finely honed where Monroe’s originals were slightly wild and ragged. Vocal guest spots from legendary tenors Del McCoury and Bobby Osborne—as well as a bit of extra-greasy picking by Glen Duncan and Jason Carter (fiddle) and Ronnie McCoury (mandolin) to supplement the regular lineup of Blaylock, Carson, Patrick McAvinue (fiddle) and Reed Jones (bass)—make this the perfect Monroe disc with which to test the limits of your car stereo.
Dawg Plays Big Mon (Acoustic Disc) is a CD chock-full of 20 assorted musical tracks from David Grisman plus a ten-minute interview of Monroe himself by his manager Ralph Rinzler, a nice addition, especially for those unaccustomed to his way of speaking, which is as idiosyncratic as his mandolin picking. But the picking of mandolins and other various stringed instruments by Grisman and a list of collaborators too numerous to list here completely is the point of this release.
Monroe unleashed the mandolin from its comfy niche as a mere strummer with which to back up Victorian-era parlor songs, shredding licks worthy of Kirk Hammett and stabbing bluesy single notes years before B.B. King. Monroe’s mandolin paved the way for Scruggs-style banjo, Grisman’s gypsy jazz, Tony Rice’s spacegrass, or whatever magic Jerry Douglas conjures on a daily basis.
Half the tracks on Dawg are previously unreleased, and the ones that aren’t are drawn from a wide swath of discs, so you’re getting your money’s worth, especially on a six-minute version of the elegiac My Last Days on Earth. Other highlights are On & On from duet partners Jerry Garcia and Red Allen, a couple of picking duets with Doc Watson, and a handful of tracks with—you guessed it—Del McCoury and sons Ronnie and Rob.
Which brings us to the year’s essential Monroe tribute, the 16-track, 41-minute Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe (McCoury Music). The title strikes an odd note with me, as the performances within are anything but nostalgic strolls. Del’s voice, a serrated edge to Monroe’s stiletto, makes every whoop, yodel and slide possible within the tight constraints of a traditional bluegrass arrangement while Ronnie’s mandolin bites and snarls.
While every track has bluegrass’ best band at its bluesy best, seldom played inclusions like Lonesome Truck Driver’s Blues (a Monroe studio cut ruined by the inclusion of an electric guitar, presumably at the insistence of producer Owen Bradley), The Girl in the Blue Velvet Band, and blistering versions of Live and Let Live and Brakeman’s Blues make this album as vital as the originals that inspired it.