Skippin’ and Flyin’
Spruce and Maple Music
5 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
West coast bluegrass maven Laurie Lewis pays tribute to Bill Monroe by exploring his roots and branches in ways few others have attempted. In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth, several Monroe ‘tributes’ have been released. Skippin’ and Flyin’ is easily the most impressive and understated.
Nowhere on the cover of Skippin’ and Flyin’ is Mr. Monroe mentioned or illustrated. Rather, Laurie Lewis appears in full-blown Blue Grass Boy regalia, dressed with the same precision of style and substance that has been her hallmark for the past several decades as one of bluegrass and acoustiblue music’s beautiful flowers.
Skippin’ and Flyin’ is not simply a collection of Monroe tunes recorded by a contemporary band. Rather, the disc goes to the heart of Mr. Monroe’s music, exploring its soul and his motivations and influences.
Laurie Lewis is no newcomer, having played almost every bluegrass festival there is and having recorded several excellent albums over the years. However, she has never narrowed her field of vision and has recorded some of the finest folk-inspired music of the past three decades, among them her incredible collaborations with Tom Rozum The Oak and the Laurel and the under-heralded Guest House.
Throughout this recent album, Lewis doesn’t mimic what Bill Monroe did in 1947 and 1957; she goes deeper, exploring what he may have heard and been affected by in earlier years. In doing so, she gets to the root of Bill Monroe in ways that many other artists have not attempted.
Skippin’ and Flyin’ takes its name from “Old Ten Broeck,” which opens this magnificent 55-minute album: “Old Ten Broeck is skippin’ and gone away, Old Ten Broeck is skippin’ and flyin’.”
Lewis has taken this precursor to “Molly and Tenbrooks” to its roots in the music of the Carver Boys and Cousin Emmy while working in elements from Mike Seeger and Monroe. (Thank goodness for artists, like Lewis, who believe in the value of song notes!)
She takes a different approach with “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” It is almost as if Lewis is saying, “This is Monroe, and we’ll honour him by performing it as he did.” Lewis takes liberty with the chorus, switching up the ‘left me blue’ and ‘proved untrue’ lines, but otherwise maintains the spirit of the early, pre-Elvis Monroe recordings of the song, including an extended, mournful fiddle feature and beautiful mandolin from Rozum.
The final ‘Monroe’ song included here is also the lonesomest. As recorded here by Lewis and her touring band (Rozum, Scott Huffman, Craig Smith, and Todd Phillips) “A Lonesome Road,” recorded by Monroe in 1957, is blue and bluesy. A similar mood with a very different execution is found on “Tuck Away My Lonesome Blues,” a flirty tune Lewis learned from Wanda Jackson.
A contemporary gem is Mark Erelli’s lyrically rich song of devastation, “Hartfordtown 1944.” Monroe never heard the song, but one can imagine that he might have given it more than a passing nod.
Songs from Del McCoury, Wilma Lee Cooper, and Flatt & Scruggs are also included, as are fresh interpretations of “What’s Good For You (Should Be Alright for Me)” and “I Don’t Care Anymore.” Going back even further, “Fair Beauty Bright” has hauntingly ideal mandola offerings from Rozum.
Laurie Lewis has created many excellent albums, and may have recorded “better” ones than this. But none have been more important or have affected me more. By exploring Bill Monroe—his music, his tradition, his influences—in this manner she has paid him the ultimate tribute.