NASHVILLE Tribute albums rarely capture the spirit of the heralded artist, but a new, all-star country compilation, Big Mon, enthusiastically salutes Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, in a festive, yet reverent, way.
"Much of it was done out of friendship, love and passion for Mr. Monroe," said Ricky Skaggs, who produced the album and released it on his own Skaggs Family Records label. "I've always loved his music. I've always felt that he never got his due, as far as national attention. Unfortunately, Nashville has never given bluegrass much of a nod, because this town is built on flash-in-the-pan glitz and glamour, and what looks good on the outside. Bluegrass music has never had a fashion statement it's had to keep up with."
Although bluegrass remains pivotal to the history of country music, its elements of furious fiddles and sometimes morbid themes rarely appear on mainstream country radio. However, Skaggs found that when the calls went out asking contemporary artists to contribute to Big Mon, almost all of them got returned.
"It was an invitation-only kind of thing," Skaggs said, explaining his selection process. "We didn't just open it up to anybody that called and wanted to be a part of it. I wanted to try to find artists that were great singers, and would be able to add their touch to it, and keep the integrity of the music there."
That all-star list offers selections from country legends Dolly Parton and Charlie Daniels, current favorites including Travis Tritt, Patty Loveless and Steve Wariner, and the pop stars John Fogerty, Bruce Hornsby and Joan Osborne. It's slightly disconcerting, but highly rewarding to hear artists step out of their comfort zone, and Big Mon delivers a new perspective on the artists' musical approach.
"You know, I think Mary Chapin Carpenter did one of the coolest things on this record," Skaggs said. "She took a man's song, 'Blue Night' (RealAudio excerpt) and turned it into a ladies' song. And so did the Dixie Chicks with 'Walk Softly on This Heart of Mine' (RealAudio excerpt). That's always been a man's song you know, the woman's hurt me and crushed my heart. Natalie Maines took this song and turned it around, and made it into a strong female song."
Skaggs said part of the reason he assembled Big Mon was to highlight Monroe's songwriting. However, it's the reminder of Monroe's own creation of that high lonesome sound that gives Big Mon its punch.
"I think if you were going to count fingers on a hand, talking about important musical figures of the 20th century, Bill Monroe would have to be up there with Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby people who have really solidified a music form," Skaggs said.
"I was honored to be asked," Hornsby said. "Bill Monroe always talked to [piano player] Buck White about wanting to play with him, and how he expressed his desire to have piano in his bluegrass band. Never did it, but Ricky thought it was very appropriate to have me ... do this, because of that."
Monroe, born in Rosine, Ky., in 1911, started a duo with his brother Charlie in the 1930s, but the partnership didn't last. Shortly thereafter, Monroe recruited the best musicians he could find for his band, called the Bluegrass Boys. In time, that lineup launched the careers of bluegrass legends such as Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt and Chubby Wise.
A Promise To Continue
Before Monroe died in 1996, he encouraged Skaggs to continue his legacy, and Skaggs vowed to do so. However, Skaggs waited nearly two years to initiate work on Big Mon, released Aug. 29.
"I didn't want people to think I was taking advantage of his death, because we were so close and we were great friends," Skaggs said. "And the last thing I wanted anyone to think, and especially anyone in his family, was that Skaggs was taking advantage of the old man. I kind of wanted everyone to put out their own benefit albums, and then allow me to do one that I wanted to do, when the smoke cleared.
"I think now is the perfect time to release this album, because we're not talking about Bill Monroe's death here, we're talking about his life," he continued. "We're celebrating life with this music. The kind of music that he started really lives on through all of us."
(Contributing Editor Richard Simon contributed to this report.)