“I’ve been wanting to do this project for many, many years,” says Gregg Geller, the compiler of the recent Columbia/Legacy collection Can’t You Hear Me Callin’ –Bluegrass: 80 Years of American Music.
“I’m a big fan of the music,” he continues. “This was kind of a dream come true for me.” Bluegrass aficionados will no doubt share that dream as they peruse this four-CD box set of 109 seminal and classic songs.
Virtually every important bluegrass act is represented in the collection, from such early exemplars as Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers and the Carter Family through Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, the Stanley Brothers, Jim & Jesse and the Osborne Brothers to such latter-day standard-bearers as Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent, Alison Krauss and the Dixie Chicks. There are some surprises here, too, particularly for bluegrass purists, in cuts by the likes of Roy Acuff and His Smoky Mountain Boys, the O’Kanes and Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band.
Geller is one of the music industry’s premier thematic compilers of albums. He started in 1972, while working in the A&R department of Epic Records with a collection of Roy Orbison’s greatest hits. Since then, he has done more than 150 compilations and still has several others in the pipeline.
Because he was doing the bluegrass project for Sony Music, the owner of Columbia Records and its affiliated labels, Geller was obliged to draw most of his selections from Sony’s own vast catalog. That did not present a great problem, however, since most of the acknowledged masters of bluegrass music recorded for the company at one time or another.
“The Legacy folks gave me permission to license [from other labels] approximately a fifth of the material,” Geller notes. “So starting out with the general idea that I would have about a hundred tracks on four CDs, that gave me 20 songs to license. … It wasn’t easy narrowing that list down to 20. … [But] we came very, very close to getting everything that I wanted.”
Among the acts not represented here that one might expect are the Blue Sky Boys, the Lilly Brothers, the Country Gentlemen, the Seldom Scene and New Grass Revival (although various New Grass members are included). While he won’t reveal their names, Geller says that some bluegrass acts declined to participate.
“There were some of the more current acts that guarded their key cuts very carefully, shall I say?” Geller explains. “And I can understand that. They’ve got current albums that are out there selling, and they want their most important materials to be on the own albums and not on somebody else’s. That makes good sense to me. … It’s just a shame that they’re not represented on this set. Maybe next time.”
Geller is similarly understanding toward those who have a more restricted definition of bluegrass than he does.
“There’s certainly the very purist approach,” he says, “which, I guess, would suggest that bluegrass begins when Earl Scruggs joins Bill Monroe in 1945 and kind of ends when ’The Ballad of Jed Clampett’ goes No. 1 on the charts [in 1963]. I can appreciate that. I think, in fact, that that would be, by any definition, the golden age of bluegrass. But no music springs full-grown from anybody, not even Bill Monroe. … Occasionally, something will come along that sounds an awful lot like bluegrass to me — something that doesn’t have a mandolin or has a Dobro instead or whatever.”
It is obvious that Geller has minutely sifted, compared and evaluated his selections. He opens the set with Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers’ 1929 recording of “Soldier’s Joy” and closes it with Mark O’Connor’s 1997 version of the same song. He includes Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper’s 1951 single, “Stoney, Are You Mad at Your Gal,” a precursor to the Osborne Brothers and Red Allen’s much better known “Ruby, Are You Mad” (1956), which is also here. There’s Arthur Smith and Don Reno’s “Feudin’ Banjos” from 1955, echoed by Eric Weissberg’s and Steve Mandell’s 1973 hit, “Dueling Banjos” (the theme from the movie Deliverance). And there are two widely separated takes of “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” — Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers’ from 1925 and Flatt & Scruggs’ from 1957.
Of course, “Uncle Pen” shows up twice here as well — Monroe’s 1950 original and Skagg’s 1983 homage. The same holds true of the album’s title cut, “Can’t You Hear Me Callin’,” first presented here in Monroe’s 1949 recording and then later in Herb Pedersen’s 1976 cover. Acuff’s dreary “Lonesome Old River Blues” from 1940 will remind many of the jaunty and much-recorded bluegrass standard, “Sittin’ on Top of the World.”
Naturally, there are plenty of murder ballads in the collection, the most chilling of which are the Coon Creek Girls’ “Pretty Polly” (1938), Molly O’Day’s “Poor Ellen Smith” (1949) and the Louvin Brothers’ “Knoxville Girl” (1956). With the possible exception of “Fox on the Run,” Geller has included every bluegrass essential and cliche, notably “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Rank Strangers,” “Rocky Top,” “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” “Orange Blossom Special” (a previously unreleased version from 1938 by Roy Hall and His Blue Ridge Entertainers), “Molly and Tenbrooks,” “The Fields Have Turned Brown” and “Sunny Side of the Mountain.”
To his credit, Geller also presents the Stanley Brothers’ stately 1950 version of “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow,” a treasure some claim was emotionally depleted by Dan Tyminski’s upbeat, call-and-response variation from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
Students of bluegrass will appreciate the fact that Geller not only lists the recording date and place of each song but also the names of the musicians playing on them. That way they can confirm that it really is Dolly Parton singing harmony on Skaggs’ “A Vision of Mother” (1979) or Sonny James (then going by his real name, James Loden) picking guitar on Jim & Jesse’s “Are You Missing Me” (1952) or John Hartford providing the fiddle on the Byrds’ “Pretty Boy Floyd” (1968).
During most of the 1990s and up until 2002 when, as he says, he was “prematurely retired,” Geller worked for Warner Bros. Records. Since then, he has labored as an independent compiler. His upcoming projects include “essential” packages on Acuff, Chet Atkins, Merle Haggard, David Allan Coe and Rodney Crowell, love song collections of Marty Robbins and Merle Haggard recordings and a two-CD set, due out in February, on June Carter Cash.