By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Can't You Hear Me Callin'--Bluegrass: 80 Years Of American Music
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.
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.