“High Country” by Kenny Baker & Joe Greene

Kenny Baker & Joe Greene
High Country
Rebel Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

By Larry Stephens

If you’ve been around bluegrass for any time at all you’ll recognize Kenny Baker’s name. Known on the strength of his own work, he is also famous in the bluegrass world for his decades-long association with Bill Monroe. Mr. Monroe was a huge fan of Baker’s long-bow technique on the fiddle. He is widely considered by bluegrass fans as one of the masters of the fiddle.

Joe Greene is virtually unknown today. Fans who have been around bluegrass for a few decades still recall him as an outstanding fiddler but he disappeared from the bluegrass scene at some point. His only two known albums are this one with Baker (originally County 714) and a solo release, Joe Greene’s Fiddle Album (County 722).

On High Country Baker plays melody with Greene playing harmony. Other musicians on the album are Vernon Lee Brown on guitar, Bill Grimes on banjo, Glenn Isom on mandolin and Ray Hoskins on bass. I’m curious about this lineup, conspicuously absent of names that are still high (or even medium) profile today. We have to remember that bluegrass (nor country music) wasn’t faring well in the ’60’s and economy was important when making records so some of these men may have been local talent picked up for this album.

Vernon Lee Brown and Glenn Isom are unknown to me. The only mention I can find today of Bill Grimes is from the webpage of The Charlie Bays Unit, a regional band in Kentucky. His son, Larry Grimes, is their mandolin player and Bill is mentioned as “the great banjo player from London, Kentucky.” Ray Hoskins passed away only a month ago, January 10th, and had stayed active in bluegrass. He had a band called the Bluegrass Meditations and several accolades are mentioned in his obituary. He played at one time or another with Bill Monroe, the Osborne Brothers and the Stanley Brothers.

Rebel’s re-release of this great fiddle LP is only available by digital download. This is becoming more common as a means to reduce the cost of CDs (you can pick and choose the tracks you want) but, more importantly for the record companies, reducing their investment and overhead when a significant return on their dollars is questionable. This is not a comment on the great playing you’ll hear, but the re-release of a fiddle album that’s almost five decades old isn’t likely to generate the sales of the next Lady Ga Ga release.

The fiddle playing is exquisite. There’s never been a better bluegrass fiddler than Kenny Baker and Joe Greene matches him note for note. The other musicians are there just for the background fill and sometimes barely heard at all, and if there’s any criticism from today’s perspective it is the lack of involvement of the other musicians. If fiddle music drives you to a state of rapture then you’ll probably never notice, but I don’t think I’m unusual in enjoying the interplay of instruments during an instrumental number, each taking a turn at the lead.

Most of the tunes are not widely known and may be Kenny Baker compositions or evolved from old-time fiddle songs. Unfortunately, the information that’s readily available on the net doesn’t identify composers. Most listeners will recognize “Leather Breeches.””Stoney Creek” has been played by a number of fiddlers and “Callahan” goes back many years. “Reuben’s Ridge” is not as well known nor is “Friday Night.” a very pretty waltz tune. There are multiple versions of “Boating Up Sandy,” an old-time fiddle tune, out there and Kenny’s version is a lively one. “Live and Let Live” is an old Bill Monroe number (written by Wiley Walker and Gene Sullivan).

Kenny Baker is an amazing fiddle player. Joe Greene was an amazing fiddle player. This CD that they recorded together is an excellent example of twin fiddling.

The problem I have with instrumental albums like this one is I get bored. I get bored playing tunes like this, too. I can’t guarantee that the sheet music I found for “Boating Up Sandy” is the same tune played on the album, but it is representative in one respect: it is thirteen bars long and two pairs of those bars (8- 12, 9 – 13) are identical. It’s bad enough when those thirteen or so bars are split up between the other instruments in the band and played a dozen times or so, but here it’s just the fiddles over and over again. I know some fiddlers who will like this better than hard cider at the church picnic, but I find my attention just drifting away.

5 thoughts on ““High Country” by Kenny Baker & Joe Greene

  1. Joe Greene is my grandfather. I love going through these bios online and have to put a smile on my face knowing he was an amazing fiddler. :)

  2. Larry, I have to disagree with you…I bought the original vinyl release back in the 70s, and the only problem with it is that after nearly 40 years, the record is still playing in my head. It’s not perfect, but it’s brilliant. The title track High Country is a bluegrass interpretation of a jazz piece, Begin the Beguine (I’m not sure of the spelling). The phrasing is great, but sometimes the mix is puzzling with the harmony fiddle louder than the melody, creating an odd sense of the tune. And I love playing the tunes; they’re perfect little gems.

  3. Hope to hear more of the albums of Joe and Kinney, I have been listening on Sirius Satellite Radio channel 6 and you can hear them being played! Joe was my uncle and the Gospel musician Big Jim his brother was my Dad! Hello cousins this is Tim Greene and I have a brother James we both sing ! timgreene777@centurylink.net

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