Byron Berline: Thanks Bill Monroe

When I was first playing bluegrass music, I listened for hours at a time to the few available recordings of the name bluegrass bands at that time. Each band was distinct in its style and sound. Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, The Stanley Brothers, Reno and Smiley, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, The Country Gentlemen – that was it. And if you couldn’t tell the difference between those bands it was either because you didn’t know anything about bluegrass music, or you had a really bad ear. Banjo players – Earl Scruggs, Allan Shelton, Don Reno, J. D. Crowe, and Ralph Stanley – each had a distinctive way of playing. Mandolinists – who could possibly confuse Bill Monroe with Jesse McReynolds? Fiddlers – Kenny Baker, Benny Martin, Chubby Wise, Jim Buchanan, Vassar Clements, Paul Warren, Mack Magaha, and Bobby Hicks – they had their identifiable styles and licks, impossible to confuse. The vocal sounds and song styles were just as unique from band to band. Nowadays when I hear bands at a bluegrass festival, I quite honestly can’t tell the difference between many of them. Many have the same generic cookie cutter sound and perform the same type of songs. Quite frankly I find that to be terribly boring.

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“Monroe Medley”

I’ve known Byron Berline for many years. The first time I heard his fiddling was on an album he recorded with the Dillards entitled Pickin’ and Fiddlin’. I met him at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when I was playing fiddle for Bill Monroe and Byron was performing with his father, Luke. When I was asked to review this Byron Berline CD, I approached it with a little trepidation, but I needn’t have been concerned. Byron’s playing bears the unmistakable stamp of having been a Blue Grass Boy.

The songs on the album are all Bill Monroe standards. The fiddle was Monroe’s favorite instrument, that’s been well documented over the years. Bill loved the sound of the instrument so much that he took a cue from Bob Wills’ use of twin fiddles and made it a sound of his own, especially on his hallmark recordings during the late 1950’s (some tunes even used triple fiddles). “Wheel Hoss,” “Cheyenne,” “Panhandle Country,” “Brown County Breakdown” to name a few, were the staples of Monroe’s repertoire for many years. If you are looking for an album that highlights the fiddle, this is it. There are twin fiddles all over the place, but I found myself wishing that Byron would just cut loose by himself. There are three tunes – “Bluegrass Breakdown,” “Gold Rush,” and “Rawhide” – in which that happened. I wished he’d done it more often. “Gold Rush” finishes with a comment by Monroe saying, “You can’t beat that,” and indeed you can’t.

For the most part, the banjo playing is clean and tasteful and there are some interesting licks throughout. The best solo is the hard driving, straight-ahead playing in “Rawhide.” In many of the songs there are hot guitar solos with lots of notes and cross picking. But the best of the guitar playing is in “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz,” where the playing is tasteful and melodic. To my mind, the best vocal number on the album is “Molly and Tenbrooks.” It’s performed in the cleanest, most straight ahead style of all the tunes.

Unfortunately, too many of the arrangements resort to the trick of modulating up one whole tone for the last verse/chorus of the song. That was a device Monroe used to increase the intensity of the ending of a song – particularly in his recording of “You’ll Find Her Name Written There,” which is included in this collection. But the impact is considerably less when it happens so frequently in a collection. In general the singing is pleasing and clean, and the harmonies are easy to listen to. But missing is a drive and an edge to the vocal renditions that I would hope to hear in a collection of Bill Monroe standards. Lastly there’s the Dobro on “Georgia Rose” and “Molly and Tenbrooks.” The Dobro guitar is not an instrument that Monroe favored in any way as being part of his music. I felt it didn’t fit here within the flow of the music. But that’s a matter of taste.

Byron Berline’s affection for Monroe is clearly noted in the liner notes and in the quality of the music in the album. Indeed, all the musicians who ever had the good fortune to have worked with Big Mon would echo his sentiments about Bill. In all, this is a wonderful tribute to Monroe, a man who mentored many musicians – especially fiddlers like Byron and myself – who went on to make their significant marks in the world of traditional American music. Byron Berline certainly deserves to be among those at the top of that list.


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