Album Review

Bill Monroe - True Life Blues: The Songs of Bill Monroe

Bill Monroe - True Life Blues: The Songs Of Bill Monroe

The point of the thing, the liner notes say, is to draw attention to Bill Monroe as a songwriter/composer and not simply as the father of bluegrass and a superb instrumentalist. Somehow that seems an odd premise to require proof; but then, you have to wonder how many young country DJs even knew who Bill Monroe was when his obit came across the wire on September 9, 1996. All told, 30 musicians cut these 17 songs in eight different studios, from Pacheco, California, to New York City. Big names such as Sam Bush, Vassar Clements and Peter Rowan appear, though oddly the only constant (16 of 17 tracks) is bassist/producer (well, that explains it) Todd Phillips. And yet, this is as seamless a recording as you could imagine. It sounds as if it might have been created during one long day with a bunch of friends sitting around a nice studio sending out for chicken and more beer when they got tired. No mean production feat, that. As a testimonial to the durability of Monroe's songs, that's a nice thing. Hell, as a disc to play in the background while working it's a nice thing, for these really are stellar songs and all. But it's astonishing how faceless and indistinct 30 such well-regarded musicians can be. True Life Blues they call it, and that's a good name for what Monroe played all those years. But there's little blue in these renditions of his songs. Oh, there's a lot of speed on "Rawhide", and Del McCoury's vocals on "Can't You Hear Me Callin' " are first-rate pleading...stuff like that does happen. But it's all very nice and well-mannered and polite, and I swear bluegrass runs deeper and stronger than that. Indeed, it does. Just for fun, I dug up Monroe's original version of the title track, and if you were wanting a reminder of how great a songwriter, singer and player he was, that's where I'd start. Back in the '40s, before Nashville got so clever and clean about hillbilly music.