In 1974 a bluegrass "supergroup" of sorts formed in California for a one-time television appearance in Los Angeles, celebrating Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. This band was formed strictly for this one-time TV appearance, but when Bill's bus broke down on the way to the TV show they found themselves suddenly headlining. Out of that performance came a one-record deal from Warner Brothers.

So David Grisman, Clarence White, Peter Rowan, Richard Greene, Bill Keith, John Kahn, and John Guerin headed into the studio and finished Muleskinner: A Potpourri of Bluegrass Jam in only two weeks. These guys just came into the studio and played what they all knew best: bluegrass, but bluegrass with a clear rock influence, which was what was happening in the early 1970s.

Listening to this album is really a pleasure, as almost every player can be considered a virtuoso. Clarence White on lead guitar was re-inventing the bluegrass guitar beyond just the basic rhythm and "into hair-raising leads that promised a new Django in our midst," according to Peter Rowan's liner notes. Unfortunately, White died not too long after in a car crash outside a club in the desert, late at night as he was packing up his gear to head home.

Beginning the album is "Muleskinner Blues," which comes closer to rock 'n' roll than any other tune on the album. Kicking off the tune is Clarence White's country-fried Telecaster, and the rest of the band kicks in with a nice fast-paced rhythm, turning the track into an electrified bluegrass bash. There is some beautifully strange soloing from Bill Keith, the man who put the band together, on this tune. Peter Rowan is wailing on some vocals and seems to be living out his 'n' and roll vocalist dreams on this one.

While a couple tracks appear to have been written specifically for this album, such as the Peter Rowan penned "Blue Mule" and the Rowan/Roberts tune "Runways of the Moon," many of the songs are traditional, such as "Dark Hollow," "Whitehouse Blues," "Rain and Snow," and "Soldier's Joy." It's hard to say this and actually believe it, but every solo on this album is masterful and worthy of listening to over and over again. These players were the BEST, completely on top of their game when this album was made. Then again some of them still are--I've recently seen Grisman put on a killer show, and Peter Rowan as well. Somehow Rowan has managed to maintain that beautiful voice of his. John Kahn rounds the album out with his wonderful bass playing.

My favorite tune on Muleskinner is the Grisman-penned "Opus 57 in G Minor." An absolutely stunning instrumental, this tune really showcases the lovely banjo playing of Bill Keith, whom Rowan also alleged was re-inventing the instrument. There is some amazing interplay between the banjo and mandolin with the fiddle coming in later and adding its own solos to the conversation. This tune almost comes off as classical, the rhythm changes and instrumental harmonies all seem to have that feel to them. This is a great bluegrass-inspired album, really a classic. A must have for any bluegrass fan, the album has been repackaged with some interesting liner notes courtesy of Mr. Rowan and makes a great piece to add to the library of any music fan.

Sam Katz
JamBase | Boston
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[Published on: 12/3/03]

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