Modernizing Monroe:
The Nashville Bluegrass Band

November 10, 2001
By Russ Ringsak
Bill Monroe described himself by saying, "I'm a farmer with a mandolin and a high tenor voice," but he brought sophistication and high energy to simple songs and in doing so created a distinctive American style, at once personal and broad-based. One hears the legends about Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys touring the South in the late forties and fifties with a big car and a truck, the truck carrying stage platforms, folding chairs and a tent; how that in the morning the band would raise the tent, build a stage, set out the chairs, and then in the afternoon they'd play baseball against the locals, and that if there weren't enough to play baseball they'd have boxing matches against all comers. In the evening, of course, they'd get down to business and drive people crazy with the music. And then they'd pack it all up and drive to the next town.

It seems entirely appropriate that it would be that way. Some say the Monroe brothers upped the ante on traditional music the way that Duke Ellington and Miles Davis did on jazz, but it might be just as true to say they injected a gut-level intensity into old-time music in the same way that Muddy Waters did to the blues or that heavy metal later did to rock. It's probably also safe to say that early bluegrass musicians didn't sit around and explore rhythmic and melodic concepts in workshops and classrooms any more than Willie Dixon and Little Walter did; the workshop was always the stage.

It would be a tall order to unload a truck, set up chairs and a tent, fight in the afternoon and then play virtuoso fiddle and mandolin at night, but they did it, night after night. Paid those dues and now, 60 years later, when the music is done right it goes right back there to the ripping intensity of those who first set the style.

The Nashville Bluegrass Band has brought that kind of energy to the stage since its beginnings in 1984, when it was founded by four musicians who had come to Nashville in the mid 70s: Alan O'Bryant (banjo), Pat Enright (guitar), Mike Compton (mandolin) and Mark Hembree (bass). They were formed to back Minnie Pearl and others on a package tour, which, as near as we can find out, did not include having to fight anyone in the crowd or even having to take them on in baseball. But even if they don't have to set up a tent or chairs or any of the rest of it, no one could accuse today's musicians of being soft, especially given the demands of world touring and recording and the general hassle of trying to make ends meet.

Their first album came out in 1985, My Native Home, (on Rounder, produced by Bela Fleck) and shortly thereafter they added Stuart Duncan on fiddle. All but Hembree are in the band today; Dennis Crouch has been with them on upright bass since last fall.

In 1986 they were the first bluegrass band to play the People's Republic of China and in '88 toured the Middle East, including Qatar and Iraq. They've been to Europe and Japan and went to Brazil in '97, doing shows in Brazilia and Rio de Janeiro. (Of all places, Rio seems the farthest leap from Appalachia; it may be closer than we think.) Besides their eight albums on Rounder and Sugar Hill, they've recorded for two movies, including the Soggy Bottom Boys tracks on O Brother, Where Art Thou?; won two Grammy Awards, two Entertainer of the Year awards and four Vocal Group of the Year titles from IBMA, and a whole lot of individual awards. All five are regular Nashville session musicians.

They have been accused of being a modern bluegrass band because they've always been willing to experiment, and last spring they went so far out as to record a concert with the Nashville Chamber Orchestra: a piece written by a classical violinist, Conni Elisor, called "Whiskey Before Breakfast: Partitas for Chamber Orchestra and String Band." Weren't used to playing for a conductor but they got used to it in short order, and it came off well enough to broadcast on National Public Radio.

Their collective pedigree includes ties with the Tasty Licks, the Dreadful Snakes, the Phantoms of the Opry, the Monroe Doctrine, Lost Highway, Flatt and Scruggs, Bela Fleck, Peter Rowan, Larry Sparks and a lot of others, and ultimately you can trace the whole family back to a farm near Rosine, Kentucky, where Bill Monroe was born in 1911. It's the reckless ability to find new ways to take the form wherever it might lead that ties the NBB directly back to the Monroe legacy; by not playing everything exactly as it was played back then, they have most closely captured the spirit of the original. The old Blue Grass Boys were modern before the term came into general use.

You can hear the best of both old and new on their last album, American Beauty, on Sugar Hill Records; and they are also to be found on the soundtrack for "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" on Mercury. Mike Compton is featured on the soundtrack for Down From The Mountain, on Lost Highway Records, and Stuart Duncan released a solo album on Rounder in '92 that became the IBMA's Instrumental Record of the Year.

Bill Monroe was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997, and logically so: his anthem, "Blue Moon of Kentucky," was on the B side of Elvis' first single on Sun Records. Carl Perkins said that the first thing Elvis said to him when they met was: "Do you like Bill Monroe?" And a reporter once asked Bill if it bothered him that Elvis had recorded a reworked version his signature tune; "Nossir," he said, "Them were some powerful checks."

Describing bluegrass, Monroe said: "It's got a hard drive to it. It's Scotch bagpipes and old-time fidding.... It's blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound. It's plain music that tells a story. It's played from my heart to your heart, and it will touch you."

A writer and truck driver, Russ Ringsak has been with A Prairie Home Companion since 1974.

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