When I first popped this CD into the player in my car, I have to admit I was disappointed with what I heard. It was an original song, “Cool, Cool Ride,” by fiddler/guitarist/singer Lisa Fuglie, and it didn’t move me.
I hit the button to skip it to the next selection, “Chattanooga,” by guitarist/vocalist Derek Johnson, which is a much better song to listen to while driving, because it, well, drives with a cascade of notes from the banjo. I got to where I was going before the song ended (short trip), and I didn’t listen to the CD until the next day when I had time to sit with headphones, listen and ruminate about each track.
After more careful listening, I decided that each song was a gem, even “Cool, Cool Ride.” After repeated listenings, though, I remain convinced that “Cool, Cool Ride” and “Chattanooga” should switch places. “Chattanooga” is a much better opener, because it drives and grabs you by the ear. Plus, it has the line that gave the CD its title.
This is Monroe Crossing’s 13th recording — the band is calling it their “lucky 13th” in the publicity materials — and it has that blend of old and new, loud and soft, fast and slow, ballad and breakdown, fun and serious material that make any recording project, no matter what genre, a pleasure to purchase and listen to over and over again. Moreover, it’s one of those recordings that has such all-around quality that you want to listen intently, not while doing something else. It isn’t background music.
I know, because I’ve got it on in my ears right now while typing this, and I keep stopping to listen carefully to the harmonies, the great picking and the absolutely literary quality of the songwriting, especially Fuglie’s writing.
Readers who listen regularly to the weekend or Thursday night bluegrass music programs on Rolla radio stations have likely heard of Monroe Crossing.
There are 14 tunes on this CD. In addition to the aforementioned “Cool, Cool Ride” and “Chattanooga,” there are seven other band originals: “Bullet Train,” “Cicada,” “Rain Was Turning Into Snow,” “Heavenly Table,” “Easy to Get Lost,” “If the World Were Filled With You,” and “Bread and Milk.”
In addition, the band includes “Hobos in the Roundhouse,” by Bill Isles, a folk singer; “Foggy River,” a classic country song by Hank Thompson; “Doing My Time,” by Jimmy Skinner, which is a Flatt and Scruggs tune; “Last Letter Home,” a classic bluegrass song heard usually in the Sam Bush version on the local bluegrass radio programs, and, believe it or not, “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress,” a long-time-ago hit by The Hollies, a British rock group.
Page 2 of 4 - Monroe Crossing is a Minnesota-based bluegrass band, but they like coming South, especially in the winter, and they have a good feeling for the Southern states and people, a feeling that comes through in their songs.
For instance, in “Heavenly Table,” one of the old-timiest-sounding of the tunes on the disc, they celebrate the virtues of biscuits and gravy, cornbread and butter, greens and tomatoes, hominy and okra, catfish and cole slaw and hush puppies, beans and bacon. The liner notes say these are their “favorite foods,” so we can look past their Minnesota-ness.
Likewise, they’ve got an instrumental, “Cicada,” that surely captures the summer sounds of that critter that we’re so familiar with down here.
And “Bread and Milk” reminds me of what goes on around here in the winter when the weathercasters on TV and radio start warning us of impending snow. People charge into the grocery stores and empty the shelves of bread and the dairy cases of milk; they have to stock up because they seem to think they’re going to be stuck at home for months. Monroe Crossing gets it down in song.
Those three, “Heavenly Table,” “Cicada,” and “Bread and Milk,” are all Lisa Fuglie tunes.
She’s also the writer (with bassist/vocalist Mark Anderson, who co-wrote “Bread and Milk”) of “Bullet Train,” another fast-moving song. Bluegrass and country music are filled with songs about trains, from the Old 97 to the Wabash Cannonball. This is the first bluegrass song I’ve heard about a high-speed, solar-powered, magnetically-levitating, California-built high-speed train. Life changes, technology changes and bluegrass reflects those changes.
Johnson, a new member of the band, wrote “Chattanooga,” a song about going back home, a familiar bluegrass theme, and “Easy to Get Lost,” in which he uses the line, “It’s easy to get lost when you don’t know where you’re going,” told to him by a woman who overheard him giving directions to a confused tourist in downtown Minneapolis.
“Rain Was Turning Into Snow,” by mandolinist/singer Matt Thompson, is a metaphor about a once-warm relationship turning cold.
Lisa Fuglie also wrote “If the World Were Filled With You,” not a gospel song but certainly an inspirational song about how wonderful it is to be around people who are filled with the fruit of the spirit, people she refers to as “God-tended” vines.
“Last Letter Home” is a mournful song about a Southern cavalryman in the Civil War. Every bluegrass project needs a mournful Civil War song, especially one written from the Southern point of view. “Doing My Time” was worked up during a sound check after Earl Scruggs passed away, according to the liner notes. “Foggy River” is country, but it has been done bluegrass-style before, and it works.
Page 3 of 4 - So, too, does “Long, Cool Woman.” I can see you shaking your head and hear you snickering, but believe me, it works. Maybe we’ll hear it Saturday night on the radio right after my other favorite crossover, “Burning Love,” by Dale Ann Bradley and the New Coon Creek Girls.
My absolute favorite song on this disc is “Hobos in the Roundhouse.” It’s a slower song by, according to the liner notes, Bill Isles, a folk singer from Duluth, Minn., who wrote the song “as a tribute to his grandfather who worked in a train roundhouse during the Great Depression.”
According to the notes, Isles’s grandfather worked nights and would let hobos sleep in the roundhouse during cold weather, in spite of the danger of losing his job.
The lyrics of this song are absolutely wonderful, about a man who kisses his family at bedtime and then heads off to work where he takes care of the trains and looks out for his hobos. It’s even gospel-tinged with the narrator wondering what would Jesus do in this dilemma of taking care of the hobos while trying to keep the job to take care of his family. The Lord provides an answer. I’ll not tell you what it is, for I don’t want to spoil it.
I’ve mentioned most of the band members already. To those names add David Robinson, the banjo picker who also plays harmonica; he’s another new member and what a fine addition he is. All of these musicians are impeccable artists and they’ve come up with brilliant arrangements of these songs.
And they’re not afraid to try something different. Not only do they use clawhammer banjo on a couple of tunes, they’ve got harmonica and even a snare drum on one. Don’t gasp; you hardly notice the snare.
This is a CD that both traditional bluegrass fans, like myself, and progressives will like. Monroe Crossing remains true to their roots (they’ve named the band after Big Mon himself, remember) while also exploring modern themes in their lyrics and trying some bold arrangements and instrumentation.
I’m going to listen to this CD again and again, while driving and while sitting at home doing nothing but listening intently.
About Monroe Crossing
Named in honor of Bill Monroe, “The Father of Bluegrass Music,” Monroe Crossing dazzles audiences with an electrifying blend of classic bluegrass, bluegrass gospel, and heartfelt originals. Their airtight harmonies, razor sharp arrangements, and on-stage rapport make them audience favorites across the United States and Canada.
Page 4 of 4 - Based in Minnesota, the group plays an average of 125 shows a year at major venues and festivals, frequently for non-bluegrass audiences — and people often comment that they’d never really liked bluegrass music until they attended a Monroe Crossing concert!
Monroe Crossing is made up of five very distinct personalities with differing musical backgrounds and tastes, combining for a very unique ensemble sound. They are Derek Johnson: guitar, lead & harmony vocals; Lisa Fuglie: fiddle, mandolin, lead & harmony vocals; Matt Thompson: mandolin, fiddle, baritone vocals; Mark Anderson: bass & bass vocals; and David Robinson: banjo. Their paths crossed through the music of Bill Monroe so they like to say they had a “Monroe Crossing.”
Among their many honors, Monroe Crossing was selected to showcase at the 2007 International Bluegrass Music Association Convention and they were inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 2007. The only bluegrass band ever nominated as “Artist of the Year” by the Minnesota Music Academy (MMA), Monroe Crossing won the 2003 MMA “Bluegrass Album of the Year” award. The group also took home four awards — for Female Vocalist, Guitar, Mandolin and Banjo — at the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association’s 25th Anniversary Awards Banquet.
Monroe Crossing has recorded 13 CDs and one DVD to date, their latest (before ‘The Road Never Ends”) was the well-reviewed album “Joy Joy Joy,” showcasing the band’s originality and reverence for the bluegrass tradition.