Bill Monroe,
Live from Mountain Stage
(Blue Plate, 1999)

Blue Plate Music leaves us with an enjoyable relic of Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, who had attained near sainthood before his death at a ripe old age a few years ago. That saintly iconography is all too apparent on the cover, with a deftly cropped photo of a ferociously patriarchal Monroe, ready to hurl the lightning at those who compromise his musical vision.

Fortunately, the music on the disc is much friendlier, a well-recorded live show on Mountain Stage, with Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys at their musical and chatty best. "My Sweet Blue Eyed Darlin'" begins the series of songs, each one given a charming and courtly introduction by Monroe, every inch the fine old Kentucky gentleman.

"Old" is the operative word here. By 1989, the year this concert was recorded, Monroe's mandolin chops were still as sprightly as ever, but the tenor voice had been hit hard by the years. Still, Monroe loved performing, and those who love bluegrass were justly forgiving of the sung notes that often went flat, blue below the level of "blueness" that the genre allows. The first note of "Muleskinner Blues" takes a nosedive, and Monroe quickly shifts to a still serviceable falsetto. Other notes follow that approach a pain threshhold, but we're hearing a legend here, after all. If the alternative to slightly flat Monroe is no Monroe, I'll take the former every time.

The sour notes are quickly lost in "Southern Flavor," one of Monroe's later signature instrumentals, and a mandolin showcase. Big Mon's solo here differs greatly from the studio version, showing that even in his late 70s, he was still experimenting and changing.

A vocal showcase follows with "Beautiful Life," with close gospel harmonies. The audience is apparently unfamiliar with Monroe, and start applauding prematurely, before the big chord that always ends his gospel renditions. Another vocal follows from guest Diana Christian, whose light, country-tinged voice seems out of place here.

But we get back in the groove with "Northern White Clouds," a fiddle solo by Tater Tate, who shows how the traditional bluegrass fiddle is played, straight ahead and solid all the way. Next is "Uncle Pen," one of Monroe's best songs, both lyrically and musically. You could call this a definitive performance, but the fact is that Monroe never did this song poorly or half-heartedly. "Uncle Pen" and "Rawhide," a mandolin instrumental, were always the highlights of any live Monroe concert.

A blistering version of "Rawhide" appears here, along with a fine banjo solo by Blake Williams called "Sugar Loaf Mountain," a nice lead vocal by guitarist Tom Ewing on "The Old Hometown," "I'm Working on a Building," one of Monroe's greatest gospel performances (in which his tenor comes through sweet, high and right on pitch), and the old chestnut of a finale, "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms."

Live from Mountain Stage is a fine if brief (38 minutes) souvenir of a legendary entertainer, similar in many ways to the 1989 Live at the Opry. If you love bluegrass and Bill Monroe, you'll want both. This is great music, beautifully played by an absolute giant of American musical culture. And if you haven't yet discovered Bill Monroe, this would be a solid place to start.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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