The Monroe Doctrine

Appalachia springs eternal on Columbia's bluegrass boxed set

Various Artists
Can't You Hear Me Callin'--Bluegrass: 80 Years Of American Music
Columbia

Largely because the early years of blues and jazz can't be accessed through recordings, the origins of those bedrock forms will forever be somewhat cloudy and open to debate. In contrast, the genesis of bluegrass music can be rather precisely pinpointed. True, the genre had a long gestation period, as is demonstrated on disc one of Columbia's rich, somewhat frustrating four-CD boxed set Can't You Hear Me Callin'--Bluegrass: 80 Years of American Music. But bluegrass--as a style distinct from the string band, traditional country, and old-timey music that preceded it--began in 1945, when Grand Ole Opry performer Bill Monroe debuted a new lineup of his Blue Grass boys. Or, as some prefer, it began in 1946, when Earl Scruggs incorporated his dazzling three-fingered banjo style into the group. That brilliant quintet--Monroe on vocals and mandolin, Lester Flatt on guitar, Scruggs on vocals and banjo, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Howard Watts (a.k.a. Cedric Rainwater) on bass--established the instrumental template and fundamentals of the genre: close, high harmonies, a preference for lightning tempos, traditional songs or traditional-sounding originals, and a steadfast rejection of the electric instruments and lyrical impiety that would increasingly come to mark mainstream country. Monroe called bluegrass "the old southern sound," full of "ancient tones" conjured from backwoods Appalachian dances and beyond. And yet nothing quite like Monroe's serious, accelerated, streamlined, virtuosic, and self-consciously "pure" music ("folk music in overdrive," to quote field recorder-musicologist Alan Lomax) had been played before. Bluegrass was both preservationist and unprecedented, commercial and genuine. The transmogrified English, Scots-Irish, and Irish folk songs, African American rhythms and styles, Victorian ballads, and other sounds that informed hillbilly music were all present in Monroe's bluegrass, along with lots of jazzlike syncopation and ensemble interplay, as well as a fair amount of plainly idiosyncratic innovations. Monroe's pioneering bluegrass, in one of those wonderful paradoxes that often defines great art, was full of the thrill of the old.

Much of that thrill can be heard on Can't You Hear Me Callin', the most ambitious to date summary of the genre. The collection should be illuminating to those converted by the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, and useful (if sometimes irritating) to longtime bluegrass devotees.

Ever serious bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe flashes a "smile"
Michael Ochs Archives Courtesy of Columbia
Ever serious bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe flashes a "smile"

The set's first disc spends much of its time surveying bluegrass's immediate roots through selections both widely anthologized and hard to find. If you're a collector of old country, the several tracks each from the Carter Family and Roy Acuff might feel a bit redundant. But you might have missed lesser known, historically important stuff from string bands such as Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, and Roy Hall and His Blue Ridge Entertainers, all of which zestfully demonstrate that Monroe didn't pull bluegrass out of thin air. (In his excellent Bluegrass Breakdown, Robert Cantwell wrote that Monroe didn't so much invent the genre as awaken it.)

The latter part of disc one and all of disc two collect seminal early bluegrass from Monroe and his associates and progeny, including the Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Flatt and Scruggs, the Osborne Brothers (underrepresented here), and Jim and Jessie (overrepresented). Though the collection draws from the catalogs of several major and small labels, Jim and Jessie aren't the only artists from Columbia's archives to get a bit too much attention. Licensing music from outside labels is expensive, tricky business, so one can forgive Columbia for leaning heavily on its own records, but some of the stuff here seems to be have been included strictly out of convenience. Disc four is particularly larded with weak, insignificant, or better-heard-elsewhere tracks from the Columbia vaults: slick '70s throwaways from Herb Pedersen, a couple of wallpaper-dull classical-bluegrass crossover cuts, four tunes from the Byrds' country-rock period, and bluegrass-tinged tunes from country superstars. These inclusions (plus dubious hokum such as "The Ballad of Jed Clampett") are especially irksome since the set offers no real representation of the important "new grass" scene as practiced by '70s-spawned groups such as New Grass Revival and the Seldom Scene.

Despite its occasionally questionable curatorial judgment and generally shaky finish, Can't You Hear Me Callin' includes enough great music to keep you busy for the winter. Here are fiddle solos that swing as hard as Basie, mandolin trills simultaneously sweet and pugnacious, tenor harmonies that make a simple third sound otherworldly, and super-fast banjo playing that, to borrow from Steve Martin, it's physically impossible to be depressed in the presence of--even when the banjoist is picking out the mournful, eerie, variegated tones of a fabricated yet somehow authentic Southern antiquity.

 
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