various artists,
(Rounder, 2005)

BluegrassHits? Does one word follow from the other? Or is this just some generic title slapped casually onto an anthology of tunes yanked from Rounder's deep bluegrass catalogue?

"Bluegrass hits" are not as rare as hen's teeth, but not a whole lot more common, either. In my adult life they were, to the best of my recollection, "Dueling Banjos," "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" and "Man of Constant Sorrow." All owed their brief popularity to Hollywood films: Bonnie & Clyde, Deliverance and O Brother, Where Art Thou? respectively. And there was the television-inspired "Ballad of Jed Clampett," the theme song to the excruciatingly witless Beverly Hillbillies series. Mainstream radio's playlists are far too tightly controlled to allow for any otherwise-unassisted bluegrass tunes, and even then, modern country radio furiously resisted "Constant Sorrow" even when listeners requested it.

Well, I suppose the title to a better-than-average bluegrass collection ought not to consume excessive cerebral energy. Brad San Martin's nicely written and intelligent liner notes do, however, bother to address the question, letting us know that the criterion for inclusion was not "hit" in the ordinarily understood pop-music sense but appearance "in the top 10 of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine's monthly National Bluegrass Survey, a chart that polls both bluegrass specialty radio programs and radio stations that spin bluegrass in their regular rotation." Another common denominator is that all the artists are or were signed to Rounder, which has been recording roots musicians, including bluegrass artists, since the early 1970s.

These days bluegrass is in good shape commercially, more popular than it has ever been, attracting young performers and fans and thereby ensuring its survival for yet one more generation. For a genre that is in many ways formulaic, where performers stray from the Monroe-defined acoustic string-band format at their own peril (or anyway at the risk of being defined out of bluegrass), bluegrass has been amazingly resilient. My own tastes run heavily toward traditional approaches bowing to the foundational sounds of Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin and the rest, but I also know better than to expect everyone to have to subsume their own musical personalities into them.

The songs here range from pure mountain folk (Rob Ickes' reading of the North Carolina murder ballad "Tom Dooley," the Johnson Mountain Boys' for-the-ages "Dream of the Miner's Child") to in-the-tradition inventions (Open Road's "Hard Times," Longview's "High Lonesome") to country music bluegrass-style (J.D. Crowe's arrangement of Merle Haggard's "Back to the Barrooms," Rhonda Vincent's of Ernest Tubb's "Drivin' Nails in My Coffin") to the sort of pop-inflected material that, in other arrangements, could be contemporary Nashville radio fare (Alison Krauss's "I Don't Know Why," Alecia Nugent's "My First Mistake"). I don't like all of this equally, but I don't dislike any of it. Everybody here is very good at what he or she does, and it all comes down to how you like your bluegrass served. Whether you're a bluegrass veteran or someone who's curious about the genre in its current incarnation, you could do worse than put BluegrassHits on the player.

by Jerome Clark
6 May 2006