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Hank Williams / Bill Monroe | Come September / Gotta Travel On (MCA)
It seems that genius comes at a cheap price these days. For under a tenner each you can avail yourself with these compilations, each highlighting one of the two poles of country music, a delineation that is still apparent in today's genre, between the heart and the hand, the traditional and the outlaw. Bill Monroe will be forever associated with Bluegrass, the form of music he more or less single-handedly invented. Not many other musical trends can be said to have emanated from just one man. By now you know all about it, you've watched the Coen Brothers film perhaps, listened to it filter through Americana and so, if intrigued, this generous twenty five track compilation is as good a starting point as any. It's all there. From the Elvis covered Blue Moon of Kentucky to a late 'eighties duet with Ricky Scaggs. You know what to expect. A strictly acoustic set-up of guitar/mandolin/ fiddle/banjo and bass, a mixture of instrumentals and traditionals. Of course it's all hectic as a motherfucker and not recommended for migraine sufferers. Whether you like it or not is up to you but there's a feeling here (as in most Bluegrass) of technical proficiency taking precedence over emotion and it can leave you just plain cold and dull-eyed. Something that can never happen with Hank Williams who seems to skirt the opposite side of the fence, caring not a whit for technical virtuosity, instead mired in the dread, demonic devastation and dreamscapes of his acutely haunting and moving songs. There's nothing I can say that hasn't already been said. If you haven't got any Hank then this is as good a place to start, compiling as it does his more serious, darker work, including the truly astonishing and eldritch Alone and Forsaken. Of course everyone who ever picked up a guitar after that and sang about their heart breaking could only do so in the long, gaunt shadow of Hank and no-one's ever been that close to the bone again. You can hear the death in his voice, the useless years, the pain and hatred and anger. If you don't own any Hank you should be ashamed. Start here.
CWAS #12 - Summer 2003