Thursday, June 23, 2005

Feast Here Tonight

Still more from Billy Altman's notes to ARE YOU FROM DIXIE?:
Few introductions should be necessary for the Monroe Brothers, Charlie and Bill, of Rosine, Kentucky. It was through their accordion-playing mother and her brother, the well-celebrated Uncle Pen (local fiddler extraordinaire Pendleton Vandiver), that many of the eight Monroe children had a deep love and abiding respect for music instilled in them. After the death of their father in 1928, the three youngest boys – fiddler Birch, guitarist Charlie, and mandolin player Bill – began playing together in public to supplement their wages as oil refinery workers in Hammond, Indiana. Their first real break came not long afterwards when the “National Barn Dance” program broadcast out of Chicago’s powerful WLS hired them as square dancers and singers. By 1934, Charlie and Bill were ready to quit the refinery and go into entertaining full time, and when Birch decided to remain with the oil company, the Monroe Brothers duo was born. Before long, their rough and tumble blend of mountain harmonies and breakneck instrumental workouts had garnered them a significant following at various stations throughout Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. In 1935, the brothers moved back to the Southeast, where they spent the last three years of their partnership delighting regional audiences with radio shows and, eventually, Bluebird recordings. (The Monroes, it should be noted, almost had to be dragged into the recording studio by RCA’s Eli Oberstein. Knowing how little money most other artists made from record sales – standard royalties in the Thirties for country artists ranged from half a cent to a penny per record – the Monroes were dubious about the benefits of recording. It wasn’t until Oberstein made them recognize that records could bring them into new markets where they could generate more live work, and thus command higher performance fees, that they agreed to sign.)

Of the Monroe’s sixty Bluebird tracks, the three included here effectively showcase the breathtaking virtuosity of Bill Monroe’s mandolin playing. Bill’s eye-opening talents, heard here still in their formative stage, are driven as much by simple unbridled energy as by technical proficiency, and it’s entirely possible that the commercial success of the Monroes resulted, as much as anything else, from the interesting chemistry between Bill’s feverish exuberance and Charlie’s easy-rolling showmanship. Without Charlie’s anchor, it would be difficult not to feel physically drained by the onslaught of runs, fills, and solos that permeate “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and “Feast Here Tonight.” Without Bill’s zeal, “Nine Pound Hammer” would just be another work song. That each was able to successfully go his separate way after 1938 – the older, more experienced Charlie to his crowd-pleasing Kentucky Pardners, the younger more adventurous Bill to his visionary Blue Grass Boys – is testament to each of their different, distinctive qualities as performers.


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