Bill Monroe is a legend in danger of being forgotten by a new generation of music fans. His music, so influential in the development of country and even rock & roll, isn't heard very often these days, even though Monroe is one of the few musicians who can accurately be said to have invented a musical form -- bluegrass -- one that most people assume is older than the hills in which it grew.
Monroe led a band called the Blue Grass Boys that, in the 1940s, developed a variant of old-time string-band music that emphasized driving rhythms, close harmony and exciting virtuoso instrumental solos. They played old-time folk songs, to be sure, but most of their repertoire was filled with original music, much of it written by Monroe himself, that streamlined the old styles, which fit the modern, constantly inventive style which came to be known as bluegrass, and a host of musicians set out to draw on its influence. One of them, Elvis Presley, picked up on the implicit energy of Monroe's music and turned "Blue Moon of Kentucky" into one of the first rockabilly recordings ever made.
Big Mon has a more organic feel than most tribute compilations, most likely because Ricky Skaggs, who organized this tribute, plays on every cut and has assembled a first-rate house band of bluegrass greats to back up almost all the singers. The lineup at first doesn't seem too thrilling -- Mary Chapin Carpenter, Charlie Daniels, Joan Osborne, Bruce Hornsby and Steve Wariner aren't exactly A-list -- but everybody involved turns in good performances. Of course, you can expect that of Dolly Parton, who sings "Cry, Cry Darlin'" as if her heart was just broken. And Dwight Yoakam weighs in with "Rocky Road Blues," showing off his command of emotional vocal phrasing. The Dixie Chicks nail the sassy "Walk Softly on My Heart," and John Fogerty does a nicely rockin' update of "Blue Moon of Kentucky." In general, this album leans toward songs of death and heartache -- the signature lyric could be "I'm not so lonesome, I just don't want to be alone" -- so it's nice to hear it end with a cheery number. Skaggs puts together a rip-roarin' take on Monroe's instrumental classic "Big Mon," which features a lineup of 15 of today's best fiddlers, banjo pickers, guitarists and mandolin players. He needs to get these guys back into a room together and turn the microphones on for a couple of hours. That might result in a cheap and musically brilliant follow-up to this fine little record.