Wade Hill has one hell of a story. The collage of photos on the cover of Knoxville banjo player/singer/songwriter Wade Hill’s new Anthology shows him on stage, at various points during his nearly 40-year career, with bluegrass luminaries Ralph Stanley, Keith Whitley, and Bill Monroe, and Hill’s also played with Webb Pierce, Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements, and Ernest Tubb. So the single greatest frustration about Anthology is the lack of biographical detail. How did Hill hook up with all those guys? What did he do during the 30-plus years he was on the road as a touring musician? Even the barest facts of discography, like when and where each of the 24 tracks on Anthology were recorded, are left out of the package.
Then again, this is a story that tells itself. Hill is a brilliant banjo player and nearly as good as a songwriter. (His track “The Girl From West Virginia,” written with Clyde and Marie Denny and recorded by Doyle Lawson in 2004, is included here.) He bridges traditional bluegrass with more progressive tendencies and straight country and even rock ’n’ roll in ways that are only now becoming acceptable in bluegrass, and his surprising banjo interpretations of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” Stephen Foster’s “Swanee River,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Tonight Will be Fine” are among the best songs collected here.
Nobody makes a fortune as a bluegrass sideman, not even today, when bluegrass has climbed out of its former ghetto to mainstream respectability. Certainly Hill didn’t do it between 1971 and 2008. But this career-spanning retrospective is a treasure all its own.