By David Royko
BIG MON: THE SONGS OF BILL MONROE
Skaggs Family Records SKFR CD 1002
No reason to be scared--there IS plenty of real bluegrass on this disc. Dolly Parton sweetly belts out "Cry, Cry, Darlin'," and if you are in the pro-Dollygrass camp (a la her "Grass Is Blue" CD), you'll love this cut. Steve Wariner delivers a rollicking "Heavy Traffic Ahead;" Patty Loveless caresses "Close By" with her straightforward soprano; The Whites' familiar harmonies and Buck's lead vocals bounce atop a jaunty "Used To Be;" "My Little Georgia Rose," the classic tune which, for many listeners, bears additional poignance since the revelations of the song's subject matter were disclosed by Richard Smith's Monroe book, here sounds fine as sung by Travis Tritt; Charlie Daniels--yes, THAT Charlie Daniels--perhaps surprisingly provides a high point with his sweaty, lowdown "I Am A Pilgrim," with spartan accompaniment; Mary Chapin Carpenter is her characteristically sultry self on "Blue Night;" and Dwight Yoakam swings through "Rocky Road Blues," with the accordion conjuring those early Bluegrass Boys sides. The lone instrumental title track is also this album's finale, and features J.D. Crowe, Bela Fleck, Jim Mills, Del and Rob and Ron McCoury, Bobby Hicks, Stuart Duncan, Jason Carter, Luke Bulla, Roland White, Ricky Skaggs, Sam Bush, Bryan Sutton, and Mark Fain.
So that makes nine out of 13 tunes that, at least in concept and instrumentation, should sit just fine on the plate of anybody wanting to receive a hearty bluegrass meal from their CD purchases. Skaggs is the common denominator, appearing on every cut as both musician and producer, and of course, this is his label too. He draws upon members of his crack Kentucky Thunder team for much of the instrumental support, along with others of the Nashville elite--I've heard that the city's chapter of the musicians union fines any record producer who fails to include Jerry Douglas on a project.
As for the 'bluegrass-questionable' tracks, they provide some of the best moments. Skaggs and the Dixie Chicks peel paint with a searing rendition of "Walk Softly On This Heart Of Mine," and some unobtrusive electric guitar and drums might be the only elements that bother some listeners. Joan Osborne and Skaggs add some brooding low electric guitar to "On The Old Kentucky Shore," to chilling effect, while fans of John Fogerty should enjoy his Credence-style rock and roll rave-up of "Blue Moon of Kentucky." The only cut that, to these ears, is a dud comes from Bruce Hornsby, whose soporific "Darlin' Corey" unfortunately opens the CD.
Nitpickers may note that Monroe is not the composer of every one of these tunes, but he sure is strongly associated with those he didn't write. Skaggs and friends have served his memory well, and this disc is recommended to bluegrass fans to listen to themselves and to give out to friends as an invitation to join the club.
(Skaggs Family Records, P.O. Box 2478, Hendersonville, TN 37077.) DR