There’s a real and present danger for the reviewer when he or she encounters certain artists, particularly those whose work is possessed of an unmistakable brilliance and originality. And if those qualities are compounded with a sense of familiarity, despite never having encountered the particular work in question, the effect is further heightened and granted a weight that can, ultimately, prove the critic’s undoing.
Or, to put it another way, sometimes words fail in the face of certain works of art, leaving the critic scrabbling and scribbling, trying to convey the beauty and humanity captured on the page, screen or disc.
This, my friends, is one of those rare times.
I’ve known Tony Rice’s guitar styling from the periphery, largely from his work with Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, two of my favorite musicians. And I’m sure that I’ve run across Rice’s inspired playing with other bands over the years, although I truthfully can’t pinpoint the exact tunes or circumstances at this moment. But none of that prepared me for this collection, which gathers together 14 renditions of songs written by the late, truly great Bill Monroe recorded by Rice with various bands over the past 15 years.
Beginning, quite appropriately, with “I’m on My Way Back to the Old Home,” and proceeding through songs both well known and too often neglected, Rice and company take the listener on a journey of rediscovery, not just of Monroe’s assured skill as a songsmith, but also of our collective roots in American heartland—and the deepest recesses of the human heart itself.
Whether it’s the lover’s lament of “When You Are Lonely” and “I Believe In You Darling,” the hard luck tale captured in “Muleskinner’s Blues,” or the dire warnings sketched out in “River of Death” and “You’re Drifting Away,” the songs are performed with a verve and loving reverence that brings them to vibrant life. On the instrumentals, which include “Jerusalem Ridge” and “Stoney Lonesome,” interpretation and virtuosity remain in perfect balance, giving both the song and players room to breathe and move together. And lest we forget, there are gems like the opener and “Little Cabin Home on the Hill” scattered throughout, bittersweet reminders of why we endure all that pain and heartache life throws at us.
Throughout, there is ample evidence why Rice is revered by his fans and fellow musicians alike. His versatility as a guitarist—one whose gift for fluid picking and fret work is matched only by his ability to create seamless transitions between his instrument’s lead and supporting roles—is on full display. Particularly striking is the fact that he never upstages the composer or band mates. Instead, the song and the collective performance are always uppermost, as they should be. With Rice, the song is the thing that matters. And we are all the richer for it.
Ultimately, this is more than a fine collection of covers featuring songs by one of the foremost storytellers to ever have set pen to paper, as played by one of the best guitarists to have ever put finger to string. In many ways, this is a chronicle of parallel lives, one that showcases the many reasons why both Bill Monroe and Tony Rice are held in such high regard today and why they will both be celebrated as long as human tongue and hand can make music.
The Bill Monroe Collection is from Rounder Records.