By Tad Dickens | 777-6474
Bill Monroe is often called “the father of bluegrass music.” But he also made his mark on rock ‘n’ roll.
Peter Rowan, who sang and played with Monroe during a couple of years in the late 1960s, told a sold-out crowd at Jefferson Center on Friday that Monroe didn’t mind that association at all.
An English reporter once asked Monroe if he thought that Elvis Presley had ruined his song, “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” Rowan said. Monroe replied: “No sir, them were powerful checks.”
“And that’s why we play bluegrass music,” Rowan said, the irony drawing as big a laugh from the band as from the audience.
After all, bluegrass music rarely makes a performer rich. But it was clear that even now, about 14 years after mandolinist/singer/songwriter/bandleader Monroe’s death, Rowan and the players onstage were not simply playing for the money.
Rowan, the Travelin’ McCourys and guest guitarist Cody Kilby — a late substitute for an ailing Tony Rice — brought energetic musicianship, deep harmonies and a lot of spirit to that old reportoire over the course of two hour-long sets.
The occasion was the Jefferson Center event, “Celebrating 100 Years of Bill Monroe.” And even if it came around a little late — Monroe was born Sept. 13, 1911 — it was still powerful evidence that Monroe’s tunes hold up. An audience of more than 900, spanning multiple age groups, responded strongly to the sort of playing, singing and songcraft that stuck in the ears long afterward.
It began simply, with Rowan on guitar and Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, harmonizing tightly on “Long Journey Home,” originally performed by the Monroe Brothers. Like that old version, the pair did it country rag style, with tight harmonies, McCoury sounding much in timbre and inflection like his father, Del, another old-school Monroe band member.
By the end, the rest of the players joined in, driving it home in more bluegrassy style. And things stayed that way, driving and swinging, throughout the night, on flat-footers and waltzes alike.
Any conversation about bluegrass music’s origins has to include Earl Scruggs, the recently deceased banjo master who in 1945 brought his three-finger roll style to Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, pushing the music away from its country and ragtime roots and into new, friskier territory.
Sure enough, four songs into the set, banjo man Rob McCoury took the microphone to introduce a rare deviation from the night’s Monroe catalog. He led the band through a rousing version of the Flatt and Scruggs song, “Earl’s Breakdown,” playing it as traditional as you please, down to the twisted tuning key trick.
The show was full of highlights. Ronnie McCoury dedicated the instrumental “Roanoke” — written after Monroe suffered a bad toothache in this town — to yet another mandolin great, Roanoke resident Herschel Sizemore, who was in the audience.
Rowan told the crowd about “The Walls of Time,” a song he co-wrote with Monroe. During a bus breakdown, Monroe appeared while Rowan stood outside watching the sunrise and told him “to listen good to this and don’t ever forget it” before singing him the melody. Rowan took the lead vocal, his voice still sweetly spooky, if a bit torn in places.
Sometimes, Rowan’s harmonies with Ronnie McCoury, fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Alan Bartram were chill-inducing. Bartram, taking his only lead vocal on “Kentucky Waltz,” showed a powerfully rangy tenor to go along with his round, fluid upright tone. And when Carter wasn’t singing, he was bowing the line between traditional and progressive.
And that’s how great players keep great music alive.