Review: Mike Compton – Rare & Fine – Uncommon Tunes of Bill Monroe

A New Landmark in Bluegrass Instrumental Projects

This new recording is a Biggie – about as Big as possible. Destined to become a landmark I think.

Mandolinist Mike Compton has been collecting and cross-referencing unrecorded mandolin tunes of Bill Monroe for decades. People send him scraps of tape and fragments of tunes asking “Do you have this one?” He has decided it’s time to arrange some of them for full bluegrass band treatment and share them with the world.

In the history of bluegrass instrumental albums there are a handful of such importance that they form the skyline – they become landmarks. The biggest of them all, of course, is Foggy Mountain Banjo by Flatt & Scruggs. Crowding right behind comes Bluegrass Instrumentals by Bill Monroe and then his formidable Masters of Bluegrass. All the first generation bands made a great instrumental LP: Jimmy Martin, Reno & Smiley, the Stanley Brothers; then later Bela Fleck, and of course the list goes on.

We’ve enjoyed some fine bluegrass instrumental CDs in the 21st century, but here, Mike Compton’s Rare and Fine rings the bell, takes the palm, grabs the brass ring, and ascends to the gold medal platform for 2022. A new landmark.

Old Master Mike Compton has made the huge investment of time and money to produce this album of never-recorded Bill Monroe instrumentals with full bluegrass band backing – by the BEST. Anchored by the Gibraltar of bluegrass bass fiddle Mike Bub, with incredible rhythm and flat pick guitar by High Fidelity’s Jeremy Stephens, banjo by Russ Carson from Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder band, and absolutely brilliant and lush fiddling by the northeast’s own Laura Orshaw, Nashville’s Shad Cobb and the astounding Michael Cleveland. Compton selected a mix of 13 blazing, just peppy, and slow mournful blues from his hoard of uncommon Monroe pieces and let the musicians go to work on them.

The “Old Stagecoach” is peppy to open the proceedings. “Trail of Tears” slows way down and evokes the drudgery and misery of hundreds of miles of forced exile. “Reelfoot Reel” is a brisk number named for Reelfoot Lake on the TN/KY border. “California Forest Fire” is one of the more widely known “uncommon tunes” among the tape-swappers. “Galley Nipper” is the most unusual piece – Monroe even said the song was “not of this country”. Although not the fastest tune, it may be the most fiendish for mandolin pickers to learn because of Monroe’s trait of “implying notes that aren’t there”.

“Orange Blossom Breakdown” (not Special) is the initial release from the project, the fastest tempo by far (blistering!), and a unique melody constructed unlike anything else in the Monroe repertoire, dating from the late 1940s. It was one of the tunes Mike performed on the Opry last week to HUGE audience approval.

Next comes a slow number in D called “Bill’s Blues.” “Mississippi River Blues” is a dreamy triple-fiddle raft ride down the Father of Waters. Mike says he heard this tune only once, when Monroe performed it just once on the Opry. So of course Mike performed it on his Opry appearance last week.

“Let’s Get Close Together Blues” is a blazing show-off piece Bill probably played for some attractive lady, likely mentioning the name after she asked him “what’s that called?” One can imagine the twinkle in Bill’s blue eyes. Mike and Jeremy perform this as a duet with a galloping Monroe Brothers feel. “Big Spring” is a brooding tune supposedly named for a town in Kentucky where Monroe got coon dogs. The beguilingly named “Nanook of the North” (an old 1950s/1960s Disney feature) is an infectious, sweet melody; also once recorded by James Bryan.

“Up in the Front & Out in the Back” is another well-known piece among the Monroe cognoscenti, that Bill used to perform solo in his mandolin workshops at bluegrass festivals (I witnessed this at the old Peaceful Valley Festival in Shinhopple, Delaware County NY). Nobody really knows what this title means, but Bill wrote some cool octave leaps into the tune suggesting someone in an audience jumping out of their seat and making for the exit! The project concludes with “Jemison Breakdown” which features alternating major and minor keys which Bill liked to deploy in many of his later compositions.

Mandolinist Mike Compton is all about Bill Monroe’s blue grass, and blues. The Mississippi native has played mandolin and sung on recordings with The Nashville Bluegrass Band (he was a co-founder), John Hartford’s String Band, The Soggy Bottom Boys, Elvis Costello, Norman Blake, Ralph Stanley, country star Joe Diffie, and was also part of the team that recorded the score for “O Brother Where Art Thou” which grew into the massive Down From the Mountain tour and CD. Mike is a Grammy winner. He has a boatload of mandolin students and leads the annual Monroe Mandolin Camp. Mike is currently teaching mandolin at East Tennessee State University in the bluegrass/old time music program. He travels the country as a solo act and also performs in a two-man show with banjoist/guitarist/songwriter Joe Newberry.

When Compton was just beginning to pick mandolin, a friend took him to a 1970s festival where he saw Bill Monroe for the first time – and that changed everything. After moving to Nashville, Mike slowly got to know Monroe and began absorbing his playing style, repertoire and musical philosophy. Over the decades, Mike’s single-minded focus on Monroe led him to universal recognition as THE young master of Monroe-style mandolin. Since Monroe is gone and Mike has achieved retirement age, he’s now the Old Master.

Mike has written and recorded mandolin tunes that clearly “salute” Monroe (e.g. hear “Monroebilia” by the Nashville Bluegrass Band). He knows/feels and can play EVERY recorded Monroe break. Anyone wanting a Monroe-type mandolin performance on their recording calls Mike Compton. So what’s an Old Master Monroe-style player to do next?

One the truest legends about Monroe is that he wrote a tune nearly every day. Bill would spring new tunes on the Blue Grass Boys with little or no practice and put them right into a show, and then ask the audience to name the new tune! (I saw this happen myself, namely the debut of the tune “Sugarloaf Mountain).” Once the age of portable tape recording dawned, some of these creations got “captured” informally. There are probably HUNDREDS of mandolin tunes Bill never recorded for commercial release, but many exist in dusty boxes of old tapes recorded by audience members, or by fans attending Bill’s mandolin workshops. Some of these tapes have made it to YouTube (check out “Land of Lincoln”) – usually very roughly played and recorded, often without any band backing or breaks by other instruments – just Monroe expressing his musicality. Sometimes even without a name for the tune. A small handful (including 3 here) have been recorded commercially by Monroe admirers, e.g. fiddlers Buddy Spicher and James Bryan.

Compton and the band did this recording LIVE, formed in a big circle all in the same room at the same time, the way bluegrass used to be recorded. Producers Compton, Mark Howard (John Hartford’s long-time producer) and Heidi Herzog (Compton’s partner in Monroe Mandolin Camp) had to do a lot of hard work to get clearances to reproduce these songs (not easy at all), hire the musicians and supply them with examples of the music, arrange the performances and record the project. Then they had to create the fine graphics, lay out Compton’s informative liner notes, arrange publicity, release, shipping and debut performances; entirely as an independent project. The CD has “no label – no number” as they say nowadays. It is a triumph of “indie” production.

CDs and downloads were released in late February. Beautifully timed reviews are popping up in the all the bluegrass media. Last week Mike was interviewed live on WSM radio in Nashville, and he also debuted on the Grand Ole Opry under his own name (!!) with all the band members along in support (The Nashville Bluegrass Band’s Stuart Duncan filled in for Michael Cleveland).

So here’s the first MONSTER bluegrass instrumental project of the 21st century. Hearing these “new” tunes for the first time just slaps you in the face. How has no one else ever thought of a tune like this? You can hear/feel Monroe in every note Mike plays — that’s not surprising. But the support musicians add to the delight. The delicious and complex fiddling has that old Blue Grass Boys’ sound at its highest level – technically amazing and lush no matter the tempo. Jeremy Stephens’ guitar rhythm is filled with old fashioned hot runs; he flat picks a few leads also with all the aplomb of Don Reno or Doc Watson (definitely pre-Tony Rice!). And the banjo…we get to hear what I call “BK” banjo picking (meaning Before Keith style). No melodic/chromatic note-for-note reproduction of the mandolin for him – he 3-finger rolls his way through these tunes in the older way, sounding like a banjo.

And this band is TIGHT.

Recording quality is top drawer. Everything is wonderfully “present” and clear as a bell (which can’t be said for all of Monroe’s old recordings…).

If you play any bluegrass instrument (sorry, Dobro players) and want to learn some GREAT new tunes for your repertoire, reach out to and order this. Maybe you just want to “understand” Bill Monroe a bit more – buy this. If you’re a Monroe completist, if you like “traditional” bluegrass picking, if you’re a fan of Mike Compton or any of this band – buy this! I hope hearing this music makes you feel as proud for Mike Compton and his team as it makes me feel. Believe me, legions of Monroe mandolin and Mike Compton fans are losing their sh*t right now over this new release! Possibly the biggest traditional bluegrass release of 2022, instrumental or not.

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

2 Responses

  • Wow, who knew there could be such controversy over Bill Monroe song histories and naming. This morning, after Lynn Lipton had already gone to press with this review, Mike Compton sent out a promo blast reporting that he had been corrected on the source of the name “Big Spring”. He had said it was Tex Logan’s home town in Texas and was tied to legends of an old Indian massacre BUT that Mike had just been corrected that a Kentucky fan said it was a town in Kentucky where Monroe bought fox hounds. My review initially gave the Texas/Tex Logan/Indian massacre version, but Lynn quickly edited it to the Kentucky dog buying version (I had incorrectly passed along “coon hounds” instead of “fox hounds” — that was my fault.

    Now controversy is raging on Facebook about this. Tex Logan’s daughter Jody reported she knew Monroe well, and Monroe OFTEN picked this tune and said it’s named for Tex’ home town.

    The guy in Kentucky isn’t backing down.

    Reminds me over the arguments about which Columbus Monroe’s tune “Road to Columbus” is named for. Ohio and Indiana stick up for their claims.

    The Monroe world holds strong opinons!!

  • Dick, this review is comprehensive and perfectly explains what makes this recording so important. Thanks for a very knowledgeable review that only you could have written.

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