While bluegrass samplers are by no means rare, it's unusual to encounter one as well thought-out as this generous (and mid-priced) package from Smithsonian Folkways, the folk label known more for its ethnomusicological field recordings than its bluegrass albums. Cynics will point out that this collection comes hot on the heels of the success of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? and its soundtrack, but they miss the point: if bluegrass becomes trendy for a while and the result is fine albums like this one that wouldn't otherwise have an audience, then everyone benefits. The artists on Classic Bluegrass From Smithsonian Folkways range from the obvious (Bill Monroe, the Country Gentlemen, Doc Watson, the Stanley Brothers) through the influential but obscure (Red Allen, the Lilly Brothers) to the just plain obscure (Smiley Hobbs, Hugh Moore, banjo innovator Roger Sprung), and the result is a thorough overview that offers as much musical satisfaction as scholarly edification. Many of the songs selected were recorded live, and those are among the best performances: the Johnson Mountain Boys deliver a bit of pitch-perfect high-lonesome heartbreak on "Our Last Goodbye," while the Friendly City Playboys kick things into high gear with the hard-edged "Teardrops in My Eyes." Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard illustrate an important thematic stream in bluegrass songwriting with their rendition of the horrifying "Tiny Broken Heart," and the Stanley Brothers reveal some of the roots of bluegrass with their performance of "Little Birdie" (on which Ralph Stanley plays banjo in the older "clawhammer" style). Highly recommended, especially to anyone looking for an introduction to the genre.