Ten bluegrass albums that will change your world

Bluegrass might be the punk version of country.
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Let’s get a couple of things said right up front. Bill Monroe invented bluegrass music. He didn’t invent mountain or hillbilly music, and I just said that those were forerunners of bluegrass. Still, he invented bluegrass. He elevated the mandolin to vital status in the ensemble and he pumped new life and energy into traditional country and mountain tunes. Bluegrass music is called bluegrass music because Bill Monroe hailed from Kentucky – the bluegrass state.

Second, you cannot pick a single album. It’s not simply that Monroe’s career was too vast to cover in one album. It’s that most of his greatest work was not initially released in album form. They were singles that were later gathered up and parceled out on dozens of compilations.

The Country Music Hall of Fame release from 1991 is the best single-volume compilation I know of. This covers the highlights from his Decca years, from the 1950s through the 1980s. Even with all that, it omits crucial tracks from the 1940s and necessarily leaves out plenty of personal favorites from the ‘50s onward.

But on this one album, you get 16 glorious songs, including the hyper-speed picking on “White House Blues,” about the assassination of President McKinley and his iconic take on Jimmie Rodgers’ country classic “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” which begins at a moderate pace, then kicks into overdrive once the boys start cutting loose.

Many of the greatest bluegrass artists got their start with Bill Monroe. If you have the money and the good fortune to find a copy, you might want to invest in the Bear Family collection of Monroe’s greatest work. That comes from the German outfit that puts out among the very best large compilations of hard-to-find genres.