The Bill Monroe Bluegrass Celebration, which was part of the Grand Ole Opry’s 74th Birthday Bash on Saturday, October 16, was a well-balanced mix of some of bluegrass’ newer artists, as well as some of the legends that have made the music what it is today.
The highlight of the show was the finale, in which eight of Monroe’s former band members took the stage for the first time together at the Opry. Blue Grass Boys Tom Ewing, Wayne Lewis, Blake Williams, Billy Jo Foster, Dana Cupp, Mac Wiseman, Sonny Osborne and Tater Tate reprised their former roles and performed five of Monroe’s classics, showing off the musical chops that made them famous.
They opened their set with “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” which began as a waltz and then punched into a higher gear. “Travelin’ This Lonesome Road” followed, featuring the vocals of Mac Wiseman and Sonny Osborne. The crowd responded enthusiastically when the band launched into “Uncle Pen,” one of Monroe’s most familiar and well-loved songs. The instrumental “Watermelon on the Vine” was introduced as his theme song, and everyone backstage (as well as the audience) was invited to sing the last song, the gospel standard “I’ll Fly Away.” Members of all the participating bands took turns with vocal and instrumental solos, adding to the excitement of the event. Monroe often asked for participation on his final song.
Mac Wiseman, who has been dubbed the “Voice With a Heart,” received a standing ovation for his one-man acoustic set. On guitar, he performed some of his well-known numbers such as “Old Folks at Home” and “Jimmy Brown, the Newsboy,” as well as a song from his new self-released album, “What a Waste of Good Corn Liquor.”
“It was exhilarating to be there with my peers, I enjoy the camaraderie,” Wiseman said. “I thank the good Lord every day I can still crawl out there. We made Monroe’s light shine a little brighter.”
Noted musicians Bela Fleck (banjo) and Sam Bush (mandolin), former members of New Grass Revival, showed their flair for contemporary bluegrass with a set of standards and selections from Fleck’s new album, The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales from the Acoustic Planet Vol. 2. They honored Monroe with two of his selections, “Molly and Tenbrooks” and “Wheel Hoss,” as well as the Fleck original “Valley of the Rogue” and the traditional favorites “Clarinet Polka” and “Polka on the Banjo.” Fleck’s excellent band is comprised of Dobro master Jerry Douglas, fiddler Stuart Duncan, guitarist Bryan Sutton and Mark Schatz on bass.
The Osborne Brothers, Sonny and Bobby, showed why they are one of bluegrass’ long-standing favorite duos. Their spirited set included a moving rendition of the gospel standard “Nearer My God to Thee” with spine-tingling harmonies, Monroe’s “I’m Going Back to Old Kentucky,” as well as their famous classic “Rocky Top,” which revved up the University of Tennessee fans in the audience.
Opry member Mike Snider had the audience laughing to his special humor. His set included the humorous song “If My Nose was Running Money,” as well as a banjo tune originally performed by Grandpa Jones and the Monroe classic, “John Henry.”
Pinecastle recording artists Dale Ann Bradley and Larry Stephenson began the afternoon’s festivities with songs from their latest albums. Bradley’s crack band, Coon Creek, played two selections from Old Southern Porches, “Reason Enough” and her contemporary gospel song “Steady as a Rock.” Her young fiddle player, Michael Cleveland, performed the only fiddle tune, he said, he’d ever heard in E-flat minor. The Larry Stephenson Band wowed the audience with their harmonies, playing a contemporary bluegrass song “Patches,” as well as the pop classic “Listen to the Rhythm of the Falling Rain.” He finished his set with Monroe’s “Muleskinner Blues.”