The Monroe Brothers,
What Would You Give in
Exchange for Your Soul?

(Rounder, 2000)

The sixty tracks that Bill and Charlie Monroe recorded together are classics of American roots music, although they are not "field recordings," by any means. In 1936, when the Monroes pressed the first fifteen sides that make up this CD, they were already a well-established country music act, well known in the south and performing professionally for two years. The two brothers were firmly in the tradition of southern "brother acts," singing in close harmony while accompanying themselves, Charlie on guitar and Bill on mandolin. They would part in 1938, both to start their own groups. Bill Monroe would gain the lion's share of fame, setting the stage in the early 1940s for the sound that would come to be known as bluegrass, and achieving it fully with the aid of Earl Scruggs' three-finger banjo style in the mid to late '40s. Monroe became the music's richest voice and its patriarchal advocate, and by the time he died in 1996, was universally known as the father of bluegrass. These recordings are the start of that lengthy and honored career.

It can be seen from the first track, "My Long Journey Home," that Bill Monroe was already the master of the mandolin. Eight measures of the pulsing mandolin, flying high over Charlie's strong guitar support, sets a rhythm that never flags. Still, these performances show the haste with which they were recorded, most in one take. There are a number of instrumental clams, occasionally conflicting lyrics, and the first track ends on an unresolved chord. Still, these are fairly polished performances, and the music is so filled with energy and spontaneity that the flaws scarcely matter.

On sentimental ballads like "What Is Home Without Love," the voices blend beautifully. Some critics feel that only those with shared genes can come so close to harmonic perfection, and there may be something to it, in the light of the evidence provided not only by the Monroes, but by the Louvins, the Delmores, and other brother duets. Here, the vocal blend throughout is amazing. Even in songs that are of varying tempo, the harmonies are tight, as though the brothers share a single musical consciousness.

The title track, "What Would You Give," is an unparalleled classic of primitive gospel, a song so popular that the Monroes recorded three sequels to it. "Nine Pound Hammer" is another classic, one that is still constantly performed by parking lot pickers. "Little Red Shoes" is another sentimental ballad with a novel train whistle provided by harmony vocalizing. You'll find some Jimmie Rodgers-style yodeling in "On Some Foggy Mountain Top" -- all country singers of the time were touched by the long hand of Rodgers.

"Drifting Too Far From the Shore" is another song still sung today, a fine gospel standard that receives a chilling treatment here. Another classic is "New River Train," with its "Darlin' you can't love one/two/three," etc. structure. There are some blisteringly fast mandolin breaks in this one, as well as the great line, "You can't love five / And get honey from my beehive." There are more gorgeous vocal harmonies in "This World Is Not My Home," and some fine mandolin work in "Watermelon Hangin' on that Vine," although Charlie's guitar errs at one point when he tries to go the verse instead of the chorus.

"On the Banks of the Ohio" is a traditional ballad, and "Do You Call That Religion" comes from black gospel, and is still heard today as "Scandalizin' My Name." Bill Monroe lays back in "God Holds the Future in His Hands," providing subtle accents to this haunting song. Jimmie Rodgers's song, "In My Dear Old Southern Home," lets the Monroes do some more harmony yodeling, and the last track, "You've Got to Walk That Lonesome Valley," offers the strangest Bill Monroe vocal on the CD, an eerie, boomy sound that fits the song fairly well.

The sound of these old recordings is quite good, with the vocals well out in front and clearly understandable. My only basis of comparison is the three-CD set of complete Monroe Brothers recordings that was done by the Japanese arm of BMG in 1997 (called, in typically mangled Japanese/English syntax, The Legendary The Monroe Brothers Collection). The new Rounder remasters are quieter, but seem to lack some of the brightness and presence of the Japanese versions. It's a tough call when deciding how much noise to reduce. Most purists would rather have a slightly noisier copy with more of the original sound, while most casual listeners prefer the quieter versions, so Rounder has probably chosen well here. (The same contrast can be seen in the complete 12-CD set of Carter Family recordings that Bear Family in Germany has just brought out. Their remasters are noisier than the now out-of-print Rounder CDs of the Carters' RCA tracks, but one gets the sense that they are more true to their original source. My choice? I'm keeping the Bear Family set.)

Another thing to consider is that the Japanese released the 60 tracks in a three-CD set, 20 tracks per disc. Rounder, in association with BMG, will offer the 60 tracks as four individual CDs of only 15 tracks each (the other three discs still to be released). This disc is only 40 minutes long, so one gets the sense of being gently squeezed. At $15 each for the four Rounders, my $60 imported set suddenly seems like a bargain.

Still, I highly recommend this Rounder disc, and the others yet to come. The Japanese set is too tough to find, if not out of print, and the only English in the booklet is the song lyrics. The Rounder version has fine notes (in English!) by Charles Wolfe, and when you consider that this is some of the finest American music ever recorded, and has been unavailable in this country for years, this first disc in Rounder's complete recordings of the Monroe Brothers becomes utterly indispensable.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

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