(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Technically speaking, bluegrass music was born in 1946 when Earl Scruggs and his pioneering banjo-picking style joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. He replaced David Akeman, better known as Stringbean, who played banjo as only an occasional lead instrument and then only in the two-finger style of picking (and that itself was a change forced by Monroe, who made Stringbean drop the old clawhammer style).
The Scruggs-picking style propelled Monroe’s roots-based acoustic music, and it was overnight dubbed “folk music in overdrive” (by a New York Times music writer, no less). But its stirrings were already tracing through mountain music, string band music, blues and country gospel.
There’s a new, thorough, somewhat unorthodox but very knowing look at the history of bluegrass and its roots and at its modern offshoots in country rock and country-classical music.
Can’t You Hear Me Callin’ — Bluegrass: 80 Years of American Music, which will be released Tuesday (Sept. 28), contains 109 songs dating back to 1925 on four CDs. The term “bluegrass” itself did not come into common usage until well into the 1950s — the music was generally referred to as “hillbilly.” The most common history of the word derives from fans asking Flatt & Scruggs — years after they left Monroe — for some of those “Blue Grass songs” they had performed with Monroe.
This package also shows the role and impact of many mainstream country producers in fostering bluegrass. Many of these artists were produced and encouraged by some of the big guns: Steve Sholes at RCA, Don Law and Art Satherly at Columbia, Billy Sherrill at Columbia and Epic, Ken Nelson at Capitol, Owen Bradley at Decca and MCA, Fred Foster at Monument and Billy Sherrill at Epic and Columbia.
The core of this collection is devoted to the giants of early bluegrass: Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys and their evolution over the years, the Stanley Brothers, Jim & Jesse, Jimmy Martin, Don Reno and the Osborne Brothers.
The thread of Scruggs through the years is a constant: from his early work with Monroe, to Flatt & Scruggs’ solo years, to Scruggs’ later experimental work. The supercharged Flatt & Scruggs cuts from their glory days are astonishing in that they maintain their power.
There are many treasures scattered throughout this collection. One that immediately springs to mind is the all-time definitive version of “Rank Stranger” from the Stanley Brothers from 1960, reminding once again of what a powerful and versatile singer the late Carter Stanley was. Including original songs with later compelling covers of them is very illustrative of the music’s evolution, such as Monroe’s and Ricky Skaggs’ different versions of “Uncle Pen” and 1955’s “Feudin’ Banjos” (by Arthur Smith and Don Reno) and 1971’s “Dueling Banjos” (by Eric Weissberg and Steve Mandell) as made famous by the movie Deliverance.
There are artists who are largely forgotten now. Roy Hall was killed in a car wreck in 1943 before he could see his recording of “Don’t Let Your Sweet Love Die” sell 100,000 records by 1945 — a huge number for a hillbilly record in those days.
Carl Butler is resurrected here in “Somebody Touched Me” (sung with the equally forgotten Webster Brothers).
There’s also a journey into the more primitive and unpolished world of bluegrass gospel. Carl Story & the Rambling Mountaineers are remembered by several songs. Especially noteworthy is the previously unreleased “Don’t You Hear Jerusalem Mourn” from 1955, with a young Chet Atkins on lead electric guitar. This is decidedly not purist bluegrass — this was alt.bluegrass before anyone knew such a thing was possible.
It would have been nice to hear some Lewis Family bluegrass gospel here, but you can’t have everything in such a collection.
Jimmy Martin, who is the true free spirit rock star of bluegrass, is flying in all his unrestrained glory in such cuts as 1960’s “You Don’t Know My Mind” — a performance anchored by the great Buddy Harman on drums.
The progression on the fourth disc is startling at first, in covering the years from 1965 to today. It opens with Grandpa Jones’ version of “Turn Your Radio On,” then jumps to the Byrds’ “Black Mountain Rag,” which actually makes sense, given the Byrds’ almost total dedication to interpreting original acoustic music in those days. The rest of the modern evolution rolls logically out: Skaggs, Herb Pedersen, Scruggs’ later work, Bela Fleck with Edgar Meyer and Mike Marshall, the O’Kanes, Alison Krauss & Union Station, the Del McCoury Band (although it’s odd they’re represented here only with Steve Earle on lead vocals — a blip in McCoury’s history), Rhonda Vincent, Patty Loveless, Mark O’Connor and the modern Ralph Stanley.
I can hear the purists already bemoaning the absence here of Ernest Stoneman, who was making recordings a year before the earliest recording represented here (by Charlie Poole). Stoneman’s influence and legacy, though, did not register as much of an influence on artists or music as did the earlier artists on this set.
And I can also hear the purists tearing their hair out about the Byrds and Dixie Chicks being included here and about the drums and electric guitars all over the place.
Bill Monroe was not a purist or a slave to a pure genre — he broke all the rules and created his own music. He did not make new rules — just a new music. He did not say “Ye shall break no rules after me.” He invented bluegrass, a very free music. Long may it wave.