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Mike Compton Breathes Life Into Lost Bill Monroe Tunes

Mike Compton

When Mike Compton first heard Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys as a kid in Meridian, MS, it made a strong and not altogether pleasurable impression. “I do remember it being quite a jolt,” he writes in the liner notes of his new album Rare & Fine: Uncommon Tunes of Bill Monroe. “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.”

Almost 50 years later, he’s still obsessed. Mike Compton is widely regarded as the closest student of Monroe’s music playing bluegrass today. While his career highlights include the era-shaping Nashville Bluegrass Band and a prominent place in the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou!, Compton’s long term legacy may be having helped educate legions of musicians and fans about why Monroe was great, exactly how he addressed his Gibson mandolin and what’s behind his pioneering musicianship. Compton has even transcribed around 500 Monroe recordings, solos and all, from a wide variety of sources.

Some of those sources - including cassettes, burned CDs and VHS tapes that Compton has been collecting since he first started visiting Nashville in the 1970s - are pictured on the cover of Rare & Fine. From that material, Compton pulled original instrumentals that were never published or formally recorded by the iconic father of bluegrass. With some patient listening, transcribing and deductive logic, Compton curated 13 songs and recorded them with a stellar Nashville string band.

Mike Compton

The first single from the CD, “Orange Blossom Breakdown,” is a mandolin-led train song that seems to float down a set of tracks at high velocity, supported by banjo from Russ Carson and the album’s amazing triple fiddle contingent of Michael Cleveland, Shad Cobb and Laura Orshaw. The tune came from a tape that Compton thinks was made by a fan on a home cassette tape off the Grand Ole Opry on the radio circa 1950. Another early release, “Trail Of Tears,” brings a melancholy lope led by the fiddle section. Compton figured it out from a 1990s rehearsal tape.

And the compositions didn’t all come buttoned up either. “Some of them were, gosh, just bits and pieces,” says Compton in an interview taped for a future episode of The String. “There's a couple of them that Bill had an idea for running through his head. And he was playing the idea. And then maybe it would stop for a little bit, and it would come back in. He would play another little spasm of it. And then there would be a third part that or something that sounded like it was related to what he had just played. One of the others was just dribs and drabs of something off the radio, and just enough of it to piece it together.”

Not everyone would have the guts or background to finish unfinished Bill Monroe repertoire, but Compton’s authority here is well earned. After studying Monroe’s music in minute detail on LPs as a kid and after becoming a bluegrass musician in Nashville in the 70s, Monroe, in his diffident kind of way, offered Compton mentorship and feedback. Years later, Mike inherited stewardship of the Monroe Mandolin Camp, where students annually learn the master’s style in forensic detail.

Compton hints that he has more undiscovered Monroe songs held in reserve for possible future recording. In the meantime, enjoy this archeological dig of an album. I know of nothing quite like it in bluegrass music.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org