Thursday, March 3, 2011

March 3: Bill Monroe, "Uncle Pen"

Artist: Bill Monroe
Song: "Uncle Pen"
Album: Uncle Pen (single)
Year: 1950

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While there are a number of artists that one can argue define a genre by playing that style of music so well, there is only one case where one can say that an artist quite literally defined a genre in terms of giving it its actual name.  In every other case, though genres may have been tiled in the wake of a recording, the only performer who can boast naming his own sound was the great Bill Monroe, when he termed his sound as "bluegrass."  Coming to prominence as the classic sounds of country music began to splinter off in a number of different directions, Monroe gave the style and edge and speed that has simply never been attempted or heard previously.  Relying on amazing harmonies, magnificent instrumental work, and a distinctive tempo, there was no way that one could claim it as country, and the bluegrass genre is largely a mixture of "old style" string bands along with and upbeat blues.  Though in the time since Monroe first began playing, there have been a number of fantastic bands within the bluegrass style, one can easily argue that it is his sound that still remains the best, and a massive portion of his recorded catalog have become standards, many of which have crossed over into other genres.  Due to the exceptionally long time in which he was making music, as well as the pioneering sound he played, it is impossible to single out a song as Bill Monroe's defining work, yet it is difficult to find a song that is more "pure bluegrass" than one finds in his legendary 1950 single, "Uncle Pen."

Even for those who are not as familiar with the country genre, within the opening moments of "Uncle Pen," it is easily to comprehend that the sound is something completely different than the traditional country sound.  On the original recording, Monroe has his "Bluegrass Boys" in tow, and it is this musical arrangement that would become the instrumental blueprint for the genre.  It is the way in which the group blends together their instruments in such beautiful harmony that is perhaps the definition of bluegrass, and there is a simplicity within the sound that is simultaneously catchy and classic.  The fact that all of the instruments found on "Uncle Pen" are acoustic is perhaps the most clear sign of bluegrass music, and yet even when the song was first recorded, this fact was able to give the song an "old time" feel.  On "Uncle Pen," the fiddle is more forward in the mix than on most other bluegrass songs, and one can see this as a nod to the songs' namesake, Monroe's real-life Uncle, James Pendleton Vandiver.  Even in later re-recordings of the song, the fiddle remains the central focus of the song, and this also became a defining aspect of the bluegrass sound.  There is also a certain spirit that comes across through the instrumental portion of the song, and this upbeat, yet uniquely moving sound is something that must be felt as opposed to defined, and it is the way in which all of these elements come together so perfectly that makes "Uncle Pen" such an extraordinary piece of music history.

However, "Uncle Pen" not only redefined music through the instrumental patterns found on the song, but in nearly every sense of the word, the vocals were completely unique.  Stepping far away from the idea of a single singer, it is the way in which all of the voices blend together that separates bluegrass from other styles.  The group vocals on the bridge and chorus sections of the song are powerful and beautiful in a way unlike anything else being recorded at the time, and one can make a clear, direct link from this recording to everything from do-wop to the late 1960's harmonies found within the early psychedelic movement.  Yet one can also make a strong case that it is on "Uncle Pen" and within bluegrass in general where the harmonies sound best, as there is an untouched, raw feel to them that makes it almost impossible not to sing along with the group.  Even on the verses, when Monroe steps to the center of attention, the overall mood is not altered in the least, as his "every man" sound remains one of the most enduring and unmistakable voices in all of music history.  It is also the words which Monroe sings that make "Uncle Pen" such a classic, and one would be hard pressed to find a more simple, yet vivid song from any style of music.  The way in which Monroe pays tribute to his Uncle's amazing talents for bringing enjoyment to others through his music is one of the most moving and inspiring works ever recorded, and one can feel the sense of sadness when he sings, "I'll never forget that mournful day, when Uncle Pen was called away, they hung up his fiddle, they hung up his bow, they knew it was time for him to go..."

Though it is easy to argue that Bill Monroe could not have expected the impact which he had, one can find traces of his work throughout nearly every genre that developed in his wake.  The unrestrained, under-produced sonic approach he took on his songs can be connected to the ethos of punk rock, and one cannot deny the link between his vocal harmonies and the work of groups like The Beach Boys.  Furthermore, it is almost impossible to keep track of all the bands that continue to cover his songs to this day, and Ricky Scaggs had a huge hit in 1984 with his own cover of "Uncle Pen."  Even the jam-band Phish has turned the song into a regular highlight of their live shows, and this longevity is all the evidence one could need to support the massive significance of Bill Monroe's work.  The way in which he and his band blended together so many instruments and musical styles is nothing short of stunning when one considers the musical landscape in which the song was first recorded.  It is the interplay between Monroe's mandolin and the fiddle of Red Taylor that become so unforgettable on "Uncle Pen," and yet it is also the almost overwhelming mood of the song that completely captures every listener.  Though it is often wrongfully paired with the country style, after hearing the best that bluegrass has to offer, one can understand why it is a distinctive sound all its own, and there are few finer examples than one finds in Bill Monroe's iconic 1950 single, "Uncle Pen."

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