I’d gladly be the first to preach the virtues of bluegrass music. The sound, drawing from spirituals, folk, country, and jazz’s sense of improvisation, is beautifully lonesome, even at its most giddy.
Although bluegrass didn’t put a face to its name until after World War II, with the rise of artists such as Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, the form is an indelible core of America’s roots-music history.
Tribute albums do not share those same sentiments. In theory, every piece of music is a tribute to something that came before it, but in the modern sense, a tribute album is the bottom feeder of all musical categories. Usually serving as a way to extract a quick buck from diehard fans, the results are rarely copasetic. Even worse is when a tribute album cheapens itself by becoming style-specific. How many of you have downloaded A Gothic-Industrial Tribute to The Smashing Pumpkins or The String Quartet Tribute to Aerosmith to your current playlist? Be afraid. They’re out there.
There is only one recording in this world that I want to hear less than Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville,” and that would be the bluegrass version. I’m all for the fun-loving sounds of the “island life” overflowing with flip-flops, bikini-clad babes, and cheeseburgers, but swapping steel-drums for a banjo is nothing short of filling a yacht in Key Largo with the cast from Deliverance. Funny? Sure. Pointless? You betcha.
Seeing how Carrie Underwood is often praised as the new queen of country, the idea of a bluegrass tribute isn’t unfathomable. The rub here is the “tribute” tag. Shouldn’t an artist have more than two albums under their Gucci belt before we start venerating them? I mean, what song does she sing besides the ditty about taking a Louisville Slugger to her ex’s headlights?
Neil Young seemingly has the most accommodating persona for some old-fashioned bluegrass picking, with his melancholy lyrics and folksy panache. The most delicately rendered of these albums, the Young tribute finds “Heart of Gold” and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” surrendering themselves to the bluegrass design. Since there is no cut of “Rockin’ in the Free World” featuring Eddie Vedder on dobro, however, I’ll have to keep waiting for that perfect Young tribute to materialize.