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Rediscovering Monroe's Soulful Legacy : BILL MONROE AND HIS BLUE GRASS BOYS "The Essential Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys:1945-1949" Columbia/Legacy (****)

September 20, 1996|ROBERT HILBURN

There's a scene in "Last Train to Memphis," rock historian Peter Guralnick's biography of Elvis Presley, in which rockabilly pioneer Carl Perkins describes Sun Records owner Sam Phillips' technique in drawing the best out of Presley, Perkins and the rest of the remarkable Sun roster in the '50s.

According to Perkins, who wrote the classic "Blue Suede Shoes," Phillips encouraged him to "walk out on a limb [and] try things I knew I couldn't do, and I'd get in a corner trying to do it and then have to work my way out of it."

Frustrated, Perkins at some point in a session said, "Mr. Phillips, that's terrible," only to have Phillips snap back that the music in fact was "original. . . . That's what Sun Records is. That's what we are."

Phillips' genius was in encouraging his artists to find their own creative vision without worrying about whether it fit neatly into the boundaries of an existing commercial genre.

It's easy to imagine someone like Phillips using the same technique on a young William Smith Monroe some 30 years before the birth of rock.

Bill Monroe's music wouldn't have the cultural impact of the rock music that Phillips and his Sun team helped pioneer, but Monroe's invention--bluegrass--is an immensely soulful and distinctive chapter in the American musical heritage.

Though Monroe, who died last week at age 84, recorded for various labels, the foundation of his music--and all of bluegrass--rests in the 40 tracks on this exquisite two-disc set.

*

In their liner notes for MCA's "Bill Monroe: The Country Music Hall of Fame Series," John Rumble and Chris Skinker point out convincingly that no other individual has ever defined and subsequently dominated an American musical style as completely as Monroe has bluegrass.

Just as Presley drew upon gospel, country and blues, Monroe wove together elements of the music he had loved as a youngster in his native Kentucky. Monroe's building blocks included folk songs, hymns, the old-time fiddle style of his Uncle Pen and the blues-accented guitar of a town musician.

By the time he was through, Monroe had also incorporated banjo, mandolin and sometimes bass in an instrumental approach that had far more discipline and jazz-like sophistication than traditional country music. The words were frequently sung in a high-pitched rural harmony. The result was music that is soulful and uplifting--one that shares, in its independence and character, some of the self-affirming qualities of rock.

Monroe began recording in 1936 with his brother Charlie, but they eventually formed separate groups, and Monroe recorded all the songs on this boxed set with the Blue Grass Boys in six remarkable sessions from 1945-49.

Monroe's wide influence is underscored by the fact that Presley chose a Monroe song, "Blue Moon of Kentucky," to record for his first Sun single in 1954--changing it from a waltz to a lively rockabilly tune.

Because the song was already something of a standard, many country and bluegrass purists thought Presley's version was near-sacrilege. Not Monroe, however, who rerecorded the song in the more energetic Presley style. That version is on the also recommended "Country Hall of Fame" album on MCA. A third, live version of the song is also on MCA's "The Music of Bill Monroe, From 1936-1994," an impressive four-disc career retrospective.

Monroe, who was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 and was presented the Heritage Award in 1986 by the National Endowment for the Arts, was also just elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the "early influence" category, a hall representative announced this week.

But the real tribute to Monroe is the way his music continues to influence new generations of musicians--from Emmylou Harris to Vince Gill--and entertain new generations of fans. Monroe didn't just leave us a body of work, he left us a musical tradition.

*

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent).

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