Let’s start with Bill Monroe. Bluegrass bandleader Doug Dillard said, “God only lays a Bill Monroe on you once in a lifetime, so pay attention.” He was born in 1911, grew up on a 655-acre farm in Kentucky, learned to sing and play the fiddle from his mom and his uncle Pen (Pendleton), an old-timey musician who took young Bill along on church and school gigs. His parents died young, so Uncle Pen raised him, then moved up north to find work near Chicago in the factories. By 1934, Bill and his brother Charlie were playing music full-time, among “country music’s first generation of professionals,” according to the extensive liner notes that came with my 4-CD box set, The Music of Bill Monroe from 1936 to 1994, essential for anyone with even the mildest hankering to hear bluegrass at home or in the car. His brothers wanted to play fiddle and guitar, so he concentrated on mandolin. Charlie sang lead, and Bill sang harmony. The first year, they stayed in the midwest and built a following on local radio in Iowa and Nebraska, then headed to Charleston, South Carolina (WIS) and Charlotte, North Carolina (WBT), where lots of live country music performances filled the airwaves. By 1936, they were recording for RCA Records, and in two years, they recorded sixty songs. The story is a good one, worth reading. It winds through local baseball, the Grand Ole Opry, and, eventually, stardom and reverence for his contribution to country music. Along the way, Monroe’s band, The Blue Grass Boys, included Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs in the second half of the 1940s, and by 1957, a fiddler who stayed for twenty five years. His name was Kenny Baker.
You can hear plenty of Baker’s work on the 4-CD box, and on many of the Monroe albums in the All Music discography. Baker’s name and work are held in very high esteem. Most knowledgeable fans agree that the one Baker album that everyone ought to own, or, at least, hear, is called Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe. Recorded in 1977 and not much more than a half hour long, the album is loving described in All Music Guide, and I really couldn’t say it any better:
Is this the best bluegrass album ever made? No matter what choice might be made in this regard, it would surely inflame the passions of some picker who wouldn’t agree. Nonetheless, consider some of the circumstances. The maestro Kenny Baker is one of the most straightforward, no-nonsense, clean and clear-cut players of bluegrass and old-time music.
There are twelve tracks. Do take the time to click on the album cover and listen to the samples of at least a few of them. I especially like “Road to Columbus,” “Cheyenne,” “Jerusalem Ridge” and “Ashland Breakdown,” but every track is magnificent. Also featured: Bob Black on banjo, Joe Stewart on guitar, and Randy Davis on bass. Bill Monroe sits in on mandolin.
So now it’s 2013. Watch this.
Noam Pikelny is playing “Big Sandy River,” a song that Bill Monroe and Kenny Baker recorded back in 1962 (they wrote the song, too). But he’s not playing it on fiddle, the way Baker did. He’s playing a note-for-note version of Baker’s fiddle arrangement on his banjo. In fact, there’s whole album of note-for-note copies played by Pikelny on banjo. The album is called Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe.
These kinds of tribute albums are pretty unusual—the best-known in recent memory is probably Rufus Wainwright’s recreation of Judy Garland’s Carnegie Hall Concert in 2006. But this album goes further than a simpler recreation.
Pikelny is a member of a particular class of musicians who have grown well beyond the homage into more rarefied artistic territory. I sensed this when I saw Pikelny’s partner in The Punch Brothers, Chris Thiele, playing with Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan (who plays fiddle on the Noam-Kenny-Bill album) last summer as Goat Rodeo. In their hands, this music (Americana, bluegrass, bluegrassical, whatever you would like to call it) becomes a kind of exalted, accessible art form, art music for the 21st century that’s fun to hear, deeply engaging, meticulously crafted, and so wide in its appeal, it is (in a term sometimes applied to Duke Ellington), “Beyond Category.”
Which is to say; here’s another of a select group of 2013 CDs that would make an absolutely perfect holiday gift. Enjoy.