Various Artists

Big Mon: The Songs of Bill Monroe
(Skaggs Family Records)

This heartfelt tribute to the man known as the father of bluegrass is at its best when the performers involved manage to infuse Monroe's material with new vitality without trampling the compositions' stark and subtle charms. The best example of this balancing act is Dwight Yoakam's rendition of "Rocky Road Blues," on which the singer's ornery Appalachian drawl provides the perfect vehicle for rambling down the highway of heartbreak, a topic as integral to bluegrass as hushpuppies are to fried catfish. Similarly successful is Bruce Hornsby's contribution, a sensitive but unsentimental reading of "Darlin' Corey" that should serve as an eye-opener for listeners sore at Hornsby for the way lite-rock radio continues to hammer his composition "Mandolin Rain." More surprising, though, is "My Little Georgia Rose," on which Travis Tritt supplies a vocal performance so unexpectedly understated it practically purrs. An equally pleasant surprise is "On the Old Kentucky Shore," which pairs Ricky Skaggs with Joan Osborne, of all people, in a manner that may prompt redneck males to pine for another Lilith Fair as they would a monster truck rally. The Dixie Chicks likewise add just enough Southern spunk to "Walk Softly," while Dolly Parton lends her distinctive trill to the short but sweet "Cry, Cry Darlin'."

Slightly less satisfying is Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Blue Night," on which the singer's breathy croon makes for an artistic choice that's easier to admire than embrace. That's nothing, however, next to John Fogerty's "Blue Moon of Kentucky," which is delivered in a whine so nasal that the former Creedence frontman could easily be mistaken for a Midwestern grandma with her tit in a laundry wringer. Equally offensive is Charlie Daniels's affected "I Am a Pilgrim," which proves only that the singer -- whose faults herein include slurred consonants and a vibrato wide enough to pilot a Peterbilt through -- had better stick to his day job peddling right-wing rhetoric to any country-oriented rag that'll have him. Despite these flaws (and the presence of a smidgen more Ricky Skaggs than anyone other than his closest kin needs to hear), this disc generally accomplishes its mission -- that of furthering Monroe's legacy without whoring it out to contemporary commercial trends.

 
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