Mike Compton has produced an uncommonly good CD, Rare & Fine. It has proved difficult to review because I must say the right things about this work.
I cannot overstate the importance of this collection of tunes, all masterfully rendered for us to enjoy, all previously unrecorded tunes composed by Monroe and heard on cassette tapes and CDs compiled of field recordings of Monroe’s shows and from the seats in his bus as the Bluegrass Breakdown sped down the road to another show. My first listen transported me to the many times my young twenty-something self sat on the ground in front of the stage at Monroe’s feet in mid-week performances at Bean Blossom. Monroe reached deep into his repertoire for something his audience had not heard during previous sets. Even Monroe can’t perform the same two or three sets of music when he plays two sets a day for nine days to the same folks. I can remember that twenty-something Mike Compton seated right there, staring up at the master. I remember me and a host of others seated right next to him, our mouths open, our jaws hanging slack as Monroe hammered the mid-week crowds with music they’d likely never get to hear anywhere else. Rare & Fine is almost like Bill Monroe has reached beyond the grave to enthrall us once again. It definitely shows that Monroe’s music is still fresh and relevant as so many other things fade, wilt, and return to the Earth. I close my eyes and listen, transported right back to the foot of the Bean Blossom stage. I have wanted this in Bluegrass music. I have longed for it. I now have it in my hands.
Some singles from Rare & Fine have already been released, and the entire CD is set for release in March. I haven’t heard anyone talk about the singles as I have been listening carefully to this CD preparing to write this review. Sometimes I have to make myself listen to a CD twice, but not this time. I must have listened fifty times, and I’m just getting started.
Compton assembled a great cast of musicians who absolutely nailed Monroe’s music and the spirit. Jeremy Stephens on guitar, Russ Carson on banjo, Mike Bub on bass, and Laura Orshaw, Michael Cleveland, and Shad Cobb on fiddles. They did justice to the music. They honored the music. They made these uncommon tunes of Bill Monroe come alive.
The tunes are:
- The Old Stagecoach
- Trail of Tears
- Reelfoot Reel
- California Forest Fire
- Galley Nipper
- Orange Blossom Breakdown
- Bill’s Blues
- Mississippi River Blues
- Let’s Get Close Together Blues
- Big Spring
- Nanook of the North
- Up in the Front and Out in the Back
- Jemison Breakdown
It’s not possible for me to pick a favorite, as the favorites change with every close listen. This is a wonderful thing because it means that I am getting something different out of each listen. I suppose that means I’m growing as it grows on me, speaking to be a bit differently each time around. This is the way of good music.
There are lots of blues here, underscoring the influence of the blues on Monroe. There are also several places where tunes presented here have solid references to other tunes Monroe composed and recorded. All artists get themes that suggest themselves in such a way that the theme keeps returning until the artist has accomplished whatever the ether demanded of them. We can hear this in musical phrases in “Jemison Breakdown” and “Nanook of the North and their nod to Brown County Breakdown,” a “Let’s Get Close Together” nod to “Tombstone Junction,” and a slight nod to “Big Mon on The Old Stage Coach.”
The triple fiddles on “Mississippi River Blues,” “California Forest Fire,” “Orange Blossom Breakdown,” “The Old Stage Coach,” “Trail of Tears,” “Up in the Front and Out in the Back,” and “Big Spring” are to die for. The fiddling of Laura Orshaw, Michael Cleveland, and Shad Cobb reminds me of some great 50’s Monroe recordings, all tendered with some great reverb. The triple fiddles also bring back vivid memories of Kenny Baker, Joe Stuart, and Enoch Sullivan playing triple fiddles with Monroe at the Lochwood Festival in Chatham, Alabama, back in the ’70s (Oh My!).
Laura Orshaw’s fiddling on “Jemison Breakdown” and “Galley Nipper” is sublimely rendered, making my soul soar. Jeremy Stephens’ guitar shines all the way through, but nowhere better than “Let’s Get Close Together Blues,” which gives us a double dose of the raw power of The Monroe Brothers. Russ Carson’s banjo attack, tone, and timbre on “Galley Nipper” and “The Old Stage Coach” are just perfect, and his banjo work on “Trail of Tears” is beyond perfect. Certainly, more notes could have been played by many, but not a note here is out of place, time, or the spirit of the music. It’s as if the assembled musicians wanted to sound like a band rather than use this recording as a showcase for hot picking. How refreshing!
I spoke to Compton about the CD. He said he had received some feedback on the tempo of some of the tunes, suggestions that perhaps some were too slow. “These tunes are as they came from the hands of Monroe. That’s where they belong.” I find the pace of the CD just perfect. The music breathes. It leaves us some space to insert ourselves, to contemplate the mood that washes over us as we listen. “Orange Blossom Breakdown” is there if speed is what one needs; it leaves some smoke in its wake.
The lasting and permanent importance of Bill Monroe and his contributions to American music cannot be overstated. But, and it’s a big but: lots of Bluegrass fans seem to prefer the idea of Monroe at the expense of his music. This was a mystery until I thought about my first encounter with the man and his music. Compton says it best in the liner notes, which speak for me and so many others:
I don’t remember really when or where I first heard Bill Monroe, but I do remember it being quite a jolt. The primal sound of his style made me a bit uncomfortable, having grown up with more polished recordings, but I couldn’t stop listening to him.
Primal. Powerful. Durable. Raw. Just like Compton, many of us started with the polished but learned to prefer the primal for the foundation it gives.
Better than anyone else, Compton captures the rhythmic and sonic qualities of the mandolin. Sure, there are notes, and lots of people give us plenty of notes, but few give us that percussiveness that Monroe did. The best examples of this to my ear is on “Jemison Breakdown, Let’s Get Close Together Blues,” and particularly “Galley Nipper,” with its close micing that gives us those uh-uh-uh sounds of the wood and the attack of the pick, the sounds of a fine instrument in experienced hands, giving us what it was created for. These tunes all have melodies. Keeping close to the melody surely does not hurt the tune.
I have longed for this music. My heart has yearned for it. I am so glad it’s here.
If one insists on having me pick favorites, they might be “Galley Nipper,” “Jemison Breakdown,” “The Old Stage Coach,” “Trail of Tears,” and “Let’s Get Together Blues.” The truth of the matter is that my favorite happens to be the one playing right now. Any recording that can give one this experience is a real bargain.
This recording is very likely to be the next big thing in Bluegrass. We had the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Circle Album in the ’70s, which brought many of us into the fold. Then in 2000, we had the Oh Brother! soundtrack, which captured whole new generations (Compton was also a part of that project). Far more recently, we have the phenomenal success of Billy Strings, who introduced a new generation to the sounds and styles of Doc Watson. Now, with Rare & Fine, we have the very thing that could and should bring about a renaissance of Monroe’s fabulous musical creativeness, power, and style, showing us all that despite a serious handicap, Monroe isn’t quite through with us.
Rumor has it that there are enough unrecorded Monroe tunes to make another CD. I can hardly wait.
Thanks to my lifelong friend Mike Compton (whose birthday is today!) and Taterbug Music for producing this CD and the assembled musicians who all made it come alive. If it were mine, I would wish it was done just like this. I stand and salute with a swelling heart as Bill Monroe looks down and smiles.
The Rare & Fine release date is March 4.
Mississippi Chris Sharp