Country music legends are a rare breed, but how many actually invented a kind of music? That's exactly what Bill Monroe did with his band the Blue Grass Boys, whose signature sound became a genre in its own right.
While bluegrass music is steeped in rural folk traditions, it's really an amalgam of hillbilly, jazz, blues and gospel — a complex, often fiery music that was as progressive as it was pastoral. This impressive four-CD collection allows us to hear bluegrass become, little by little, the unique sound we know today.
Monroe initially performed as a close-harmony duo with his brother Charlie during the late '30s, and all 60 of these Monroe Brothers sides are collected on the first two discs. They're charming, beautiful, at times delicate recordings, and while not bluegrass, the foundation is certainly there in the crisp harmonies, rural themes ("On Some Foggy Mountain Top," "In My Dear Old Southern Home") and Bill's signature mandolin.
Bill first recorded as a bandleader for Victor in 1940, beginning with a fierce, fast-paced reworking of Jimmie Rodgers '"Mule Skinner Blues." That song kicks off the third CD, and while there's no banjo in the mix yet, the fiddle, guitar and bass give it a fuller-bodied feel. Sixteen of these early Blue Grass Boys tracks appear on Disc 3, before the focus turns to the Columbia years (1945-49), the peak of Monroe's career and the period that defines classic bluegrass. Monroe was in high gear now, thanks to his experience, hard work and, of course, the stellar band members he'd hired, most notably guitarist/vocalist Lester Flatt and banjo whiz-kid Earl Scuggs. Columbia recordings such as "Rocky Road Blues," the gentle "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and the speedy "Molly and Tenbrooks" just can't be beat.
Monroe made his final recordings for Columbia in 1949 (before signing with Decca), which is where this collection leaves off. There's more to Monroe's story, of course, but with these 112 songs we're able to witness his creativity blossom — and an entire musical genre come into being.