various artists,
Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza
(Acoustic Disc, 1999)

I'm of the opinion that the mandolin is the member of the bluegrass instrument family that needs the most love and care (and practice) to sound good. The reason is that the poor little thing just has no sustain to speak of. It can't hold a long note like a fiddle, and it can't resonate like a guitar. You pluck a mandolin, and the note is gone almost as soon as you hear it.

That's why, when the mandolinist wants to play a slow 'n' purty ballad or waltz, he has to use a tremolo with his pick, zipping back and forth across the strings at the speed of light, wrist aching, fingers cramping with the effort to keep that sound going. It's an instrument to which few are called and even fewer are chosen, but remember that it was the instrument of choice for the Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe (well, not really -- young Bill got stuck with it because the rest of his family had already taken the other instruments). But among the other proud and few are the eight mando-masters featured on this double CD from David Grisman's Acoustic Disc label, itself one of the great bastions of acoustic string music.

The biggies are all here: Sam Bush (formerly with Emmylou Harris's Nash Ramblers and leader of his own band), Ronnie McCoury (Del McCoury band: he co-produced this album), Bobby Osborne (of the Osborne Brothers), Frank Wakefield (best known for his work with Red Allen), David Grisman (mando god and co-producer), Jesse McReynolds (of Jim and Jesse), Ricky Skaggs (recently returned to bluegrass with his own band, Kentucky Thunder), and Buck White (patriarch of The Whites). Add Del McCoury to the mix to provide the most solid rhythm guitar in the business, and you've got one helluvan assemblage of talent!

There's great music throughout, but the duets and solos triumph over the larger ensemble pieces, which often have a ragged feel about them. That's to be expected, I suppose -- after all, none of those tremolos are in perfect synch with the other. The large ensembles are fun, however, since you can hear the individual players solo one after another, which gives a great basis for comparison, and there's a surprising difference from one picker to the next. Some (White, Wakefield, Osborne) are fairly traditional; others (McCoury, Bush, Grisman) can get mighty bluesy, while Skaggs shows off his powerhouse chops and McReynolds simply does things no one else can do. There's a lot of single-line playing on the solos, fast and wicked, and it's great fun to see this octet of eight-string giants in what amounts to a good-natured cutting contest.

But it's in the solos where the pickers really shine. Nearly every cut is a highlight, but I was especially struck by Bush and Grisman's haunting "Wayfaring Stranger," Ronnie McCoury's "McCoury Blues," and Skaggs' hot "Blue Grass Special." The picker who really stands out, however, is Jesse McReynolds, whose complex "cross-picking" pattern makes your jaw drop with not only its musicianship, but its beauty. As the liner notes honestly claim, "no bluegrass instrumentalist has ever used more difficult means to achieve the simplest, prettiest sounds." Amen to that.

The package is superb, nothing at all unusual for Acoustic Disc. A box holds the two-cd jewelbox and a full-color 48-page booklet, giving complete notes on each tune, bios and photos of the artists (and their mandolins, of course!), producer's notes, an introductory history of bluegrass mandolin, and even a transcription of the first eight bars of each player's solo on "Panhandle Country." If you like bluegrass, and long to hear that fiendishly difficult instrument, the mandolin, played as well as is possible by humanity with all its limitations, here are eight men who transcend those limits, and make that finicky little eight-stringed wooden box sound as though it were plucked by angels.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

Buy Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza at CDNow.