New Box Shows Bill Monroe's Pop Leanings During the '50s

Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys, Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys:1950-1958 (JSP)

With its roots in traditional music and its place on the festival circuit, bluegrass is usually thought of as being fairly formulaic, an updated but basically dutiful child of its folk forbears. But this four-disc set shows definitively that, while Bill Monroe was not especially popular in the 1950s, he was still trying hard to be pop. Not that Monroe abandoned his signature style—this set features plenty of breakneck playing, gospel harmonies, and high lonesome vocals, as well as appearances by bluegrass stalwarts like Jimmy Martin and Carter Stanley. But alongside these classic touches are a lot of songs that are frankly, and delightfully, gimmicky. The most obvious instance is Monroe's 1954 revamp of his own "Blue Moon of Kentucky" as an uptempo stomper in imitation of Elvis' famous cover version from earlier that year. Other examples abound: Monroe experimented with Jimmie Rodgers covers, with twin fiddles, even, on a couple of tracks, with organ. "Prisoner's Song" from 1951 adds honky-tonk piano and drums to come up with something that sounds more Western swing than bluegrass; "Sally Jo" from 1957 rolls and rocks with a cool strut reminiscent of Monroe's fan Chuck Berry. Best of all is the phenomenal "Scotland," where the dual fiddles scrape and keen in imitation of bagpipes and the guitar and bass stomp like cloggers. None of this managed to propel him onto the charts, of course—Monroe's salvation would come not from pop schtick, but from his authentic appeal to the earnest '60s folk revivalists. Still, this set shows that some of the most inventive music comes from trying to sell out, even if, in the end, nobody was buying.