Bill Monroe never made a bad album. Some were better than others, but even the weakest Bill Monroe album is still a good listen. Often, better than other artists’ best work (like most of today’s acts, for instance).
So, it is with today’s Classic Album Review, Bluegrass Special. It’s not his strongest album, lacking more than anything, that one or two tracks that simply jump out from the pack. This album is more of a collection of good to very good. As always, consistent performances from Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys.
The tracks were recorded in several sessions throughout 1962. Producing the effort was hall of fame producer Owen Bradley. Bluegrass Special was the sixth album of original material from the legendary Monroe.
“Blue Ridge Mountain Blues” starts things, here, and is arguably the strongest track. The great harmony stands out, here; something not at all unusual for a Bill Monroe performance.
Several covers appear on this album, including the early country classic “Columbus Stockade Blues”, the oft-recorded “Foggy River”, an old standard “Careless Love”, and the Hank Williams classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. In all three cases, Bill and his band adapt each song to their style. It makes the listener almost think that each was written with Monroe in mind. “Columbus Stockade Blues” may be the best of the three. “Foggy River”, a Fred Rose composition from the 40’s, is surprisingly a bit more subdued that other versions. You can make an argument that Bill’s best vocals on this album are with “Careless Love”. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, my pick for the greatest song ever written, is a near-perfect fit.
Death is a big part of old-time Country, String Band, and Bluegrass styles of music. And we face it, here, with “There Was
Nothing We Could Do”. Some songs of this ilk are cause to move the stylus to the next band, or hit next on the cd or mp3 player, this song doesn’t. The sad, hopeless, helpless feeling you have as a loved one slips away to their Heavenly home and there’s nothing we can do. How true.
Songs about kids have been a part of the Bluegrass genre, as well. Usually, they are depressing and often with death involved. “I Was Left on The Street” has no death, but starts out on a depressing note, about a child abandoned by his parents. But the song concludes with a happy ending, as he is taken in and adopted by new parents. Admittedly, this isn’t my kind of song. But songs like this one and “Put My Little Shoes Away” (which Bill Monroe would record on a later album) were among Bill’s best performances.
There are a couple of instrumentals included; “Baker’s Breakdown” and “Big Sandy River”. Both show off the immense skills of the Blue Grass Boys.
“Cheap Love Affair” is another track that is a highlight of the album. With its medium-slow ¾ beat, its melody has that “high lonesome” Bluegrass feel to it, and of course, is suited for Monroe and his band. The same can be said for “How Will I Explain About You”.
The album closes with “When the Bees Are in The Hive”. Man leaves but promises his girl he’ll return when the bees are in the hive and the honey is in the comb. The song itself isn’t anything spectacular, but Bill Monroe was an artist who could take an average composition and raise it two or three levels simply by his performance of it. Case in point, here. An otherwise ordinary piece of music that one would tend to pass over, becomes a much more listenable, better tune because it’s in the hands (and vocal cords) of Bill Monroe.
Bluegrass Special was released on Decca Records in August, 1963. A steady seller, it remained in the catalog for over a decade, into the MCA era. The publication Goldmine notes that near mint copies of the Decca version, both stereo and mono, are worth in the $30 range. An online check saw copies in various conditions averaging around $20. I got a bargain; I paid only $5 for mine.
While devoid of any Bill Monroe classics, this album is still a very good and consistent collection. If you like Bill Monroe, Bluegrass, or good music in general, you’ll like this album, if you’ve not heard it. Worth picking up if you ever run across a copy.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mike the Country Musicologist is a lifelong music and radio fanatic, model railroader, lover of vintage agriculture, and big sports fan, including the Colts, Reds, Hurricanes, Pacers, Purdue & Butler Universities. He has collected records since childhood, focusing on classic country and top 40 oldies music. He convinced Vincennes University to give him an Associates Degree in broadcasting. He’s worked for several stations in Indiana and North Carolina. Be sure to follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.
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