Inside Mike Compton’s ‘Rare & Fine’ Collection of Bill Monroe’s Unreleased Songs
Photo by John Partipilo
EDITOR’S NOTE: We asked mandolinist Mike Compton about his lifelong obsession with bluegrass forefather Bill Monroe and how it led to his latest project, Rare & Fine: Uncommon Tunes of Bill Monroe. Below are Compton’s reflections, along with some songs from the project, which came out March 4.
When somebody says the word “bluegrass,” the first thing that crosses one’s mind is not usually Mississippi, but that’s where I was when it hooked me. I grew up in a household in Meridian where slick recordings by Ray Charles, Eddie Arnold, Herb Alpert, and Strauss dominated the Magnavox TV/stereo side-by-side combo. Hank Williams was the only gritty music on the turntable.
I don’t remember really when or where I first heard Bill Monroe, but I do remember it being quite a jolt. The primal sound of his style made me a bit uncomfortable, having grown up with more polished recordings, but I couldn’t stop listening to him. Seeking out that sound and trying to understand it and reproduce it became my all-consuming obsession. Not a bad way to keep a teenager out of trouble, I guess, but not the most pleasant experience for the rest of my family, who had to endure hearing hundreds of needle drops from behind my bedroom door.
I played Monroe’s recordings to the point I knew what was on each one by the color of the spine, and whether I had to tune up or down to synchronize my mandolin with the LPs. There was only one record store in Meridian that consistently had a selection of bluegrass, and I darkened their doorstep frequently. I can remember being so excited with my latest purchases that I’d have dry heaves on the way home before I could get the disc on the turntable. I had it bad. Almost 50 years later it’s still nearly as intense.
The late ’70s found me living in Nashville, surrounded by musicians who shared my obsession and who were collectors of Monroe’s music long before I came on the scene. I began meeting and getting acquainted with the people who made the records I listened to, who had only been names in liner notes before. I began filling cassette tapes with everything I could find that related to early bluegrass. Before long I had accumulated a couple suitcases full of tapes of live shows, interviews, noodling, work tapes, rehearsals, source material, festival workshops, etc. So much to learn. All these kept me happily preoccupied for years.
When the internet and personal computers came along it was pretty staggering what was surfacing. I spent many years hunting down and copying performances onto my hard drive and obtaining copies of bluegrass shows I could find. Volumes of CDs with all of Monroe’s bands, some with substitutes, some partial bands, videos of significant performances, old country music television shows, some shows with Bill and his brother Charlie reunited, a couple shows of Monroe and Doc Watson at the White House with President Carter telling everybody to be quiet and listen, and a show where Monroe had one of his regular sidemen fill in on mandolin because he had been in an accident and had his arm in a sling. The variety seemed endless.
When Bill Monroe passed in 1996 it took a while before it started to sink in that there would be no more tunes. I thought noble thoughts in the beginning that I would try and carry on the music Bill had put in place, but I realized deep down that I needed to concentrate on the sounds in my own head and stop trying to be Bill Monroe. That is when my understanding of the style began to fall into place, understanding how the pieces fit together in infinite ways, how to use the vocabulary Monroe had invented, how to play new material in Monroe’s style. This only made me more dedicated to learning and saving all the music Monroe made during his lifetime.
Assembling the Players
As the years passed a few more tunes surfaced here and there and they were eagerly added to the library of orphaned tunes I had collected so far. I learned and relearned every one, transcribed them for posterity, taught them to students who came looking to satisfy their own obsession with Monroe’s music. It felt like an almost underground group of people who all shared something special and unique that had escaped the mainstream trends in music and instead focused on the old Southern sounds of the past.
But I began wanting to give back to Bill Monroe for changing the course of the way I would live my whole life. I wanted other people to hear the music he had created. I felt the music deserved that much, that these were part of an art form that needed to be heard. At some point in the early 2000s I began entertaining the idea of putting out a recording of a dozen or so of the obscure and unknown tunes on the list. But it took me a number of years before I felt confident enough to get in gear and make a commitment to the idea. Once I dove into the list of tunes and started whittling down the options, it all started to take shape and there was no turning back.
The music on Rare & Fine: Uncommon Tunes of Bill Monroe comes from source recordings that span from circa 1950 to the 1990s. Some of it has been recorded on a couple projects by acquaintances and some on projects that were never released to the public. Some have not been recorded ever. All were penned by Bill Monroe.
Pretty much all I had to go on sometimes was a collection of musical odds and ends from home recordings off the radio or live show tapes that had been circulated around for years and were now so many generations down the line that the fidelity was pure crap. But after a while you learn to listen through the noise to get to the juicy bits. I spent quite a long time deciding which tunes would make the final product. Keys, tempos, grooves, moods all had to be considered. I wanted to put as much unusual and quirky material out that was available and still include some of the deeply moody and beautiful stuff too.
The important work in the recording phase was to get the final product to match the vision I had in my mind, to play these tunes in Monroe’s own style, and for that I needed to find musicians who could reproduce that sound. I had to imagine scenarios of how different players would blend, who had the right energy and technical skills to get the job done right.
I wanted a bass player whose ears and hands were accustomed to the sound of plywood and the feel of gut strings, a guy that would punch the notes and would hold the rest of us to the beat. That meant Mike Bub. Easy.
I wanted a banjo player who had the drive and flavor of a Rudy Lyle, Don Reno, or Earl Scruggs and could interpret Monroe’s melodies using the older style without going chromatic in the middle of it all. I got more than one recommendation for Russ Carson, who was a great fit.
In Jeremy Stephens I found a guitar player who has not only boundless energy but also an encyclopedic knowledge of what most any hillbilly rhythm guitar player did prior to Tony Rice’s influence on the bluegrass scene. I wanted a player who had the understanding of how to drive the music through the chord changes with runs like Charlie Monroe or a number of 1950’s BlueGrass Boys, and Jeremy did not disappoint. And the man loves playing rhythm.
The fiddlers were the toughest decision to make but the final combination of Shad Cobb, Laura Orshaw, and Michael Cleveland fit the bill. All great in their own right, modern players who have great technical skills as well as a love of what the kids call “old school,” players who are at home playing fiery double stops as much as intricate single string lines. They ended up working out all their parts via phone and internet. The final arrangements they came up with are incredible considering the scraps I sent them to work with, and it just reaffirmed that I had made the right decisions.
The product is not meant as a solo mandolin recording. The point is to illustrate Monroe’s use of single, duo, and triple fiddle formats and to celebrate that sound. All I attempted to do with the mandolin is to play the melodies straight as I could get them off the source material so that people will know how they go and players will have a fair chance at learning them, not to see how many notes I can get on the head of a pin. This is an album primarily dedicated to Monroe’s love of fiddle music, not my Mississippi-influenced interpretation of his mandolin style. So my part was clearly defined as well, though not necessarily a simple task. I had never really sat down and figured out how to play some of the material properly.
Listening and Watching
Who to use as the engineer/sound tech/second pair of ears was not a long process. I knew pretty much from the start I wanted Mark Howard to be the man on the board. I had worked with Mark for decades on many of his own projects over the years and came to trust his judgment without question. I like the sounds he gets and he and I share a common former employer in John Hartford. Mark knows the music and is also an excellent guitarist and banjo player as well.
In the studio, the Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa in Nashville, there was space to set up all the mics in a large oval in the middle so we could all see and hear each other. But the “everybody in one room” idea is nothing new. It used to be the way everybody worked. No headphones were used by anybody, no click track. We listened and watched each other. A few of the tunes required we play them over 6-7 times, some didn’t take but a couple times through. No overdubs were done if I recall correctly. You learn what you can live with after a while and to put your ego aside. Just be yourself and understand that every track does not have to render all other music on earth insignificant by comparison. Perfection is not the goal of making art, self-expression is.
I am very thrilled that these old orphaned tunes have been saved for now. It appears that there are enough tunes floating around yet to do a “Part 2” of this project at some point, and then there will be scant few tunes left. It saddens me to think of this, but I will keep looking for more tunes. I only recently received a copy of a very early Monroe guest appearance on the Grand Ole Opry from 1939. It sounds like it was recorded yesterday. And I finally got a copy of yet another three-part (or is it four?) A major tune from 40-50 years ago that I have been chasing for the last 15-20 years. There are still gems about, life is good. — MC