That Bill Frisell should get the "best-of" treatment from his longtime label Nonesuch seems overdue, even strangely so. Frisell began recording for Elektra Musician in 1986 after leaving ECM Records, where he'd recorded a steady string of generally excellent but somewhat low profile albums. Elektra owned Nonesuch Records as well. When Musician ceased to function as a label, Frisell's contract was morphed into the Elektra Nonesuch imprint, and eventually once more into Nonesuch, then Elektra Asylum, then back to Nonesuch. In other words, Frisell has been working with the WEA family for over two decades. In that time he has released no less than 20 albums for the various labels under WEA's corporate umbrella.
Which brings us to this 15-cut issue, a first volume in series of retrospective recordings subtitled "Folk Songs." Equally at home in the avant-garde or playing bop, Frisell's chops as a jazz guitarist are well documented, and since he began his work with Nonesuch in particular, his penchant for playing classic American songs from the country, folk, and blues idioms has been heard voluminously as well. This selection has been assembled from albums released between 1989's Is That You? and 1992's Have a Little Faith (an album comprised exclusively of covers) through to 2002's The Willies, with some recordings completely left undocumented here. (We can presume they will be represented in other volumes.) What is here is a set of originals and covers that actively reflect Frisell's deep fascination with American folksong regardless of initial genre -- in his universe it all comes out sounding like him anyway. Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" is juxtaposed with the scampy original "Raccoon Cat," which precedes the traditional "Sugar Baby." The relaxed newgrass country of "We're Not from Around Here," with Jerry Douglas on dobro and Victor Krauss on bass, precedes the original "The Pioneers" recorded with banjoist Danny Barnes, formerly of punk bluegrass outfit the Bad Livers and bassist Keith Lowe. The Frisell composition "Ballroom" is sandwiched between a gorgeous reading of the traditional "Shenandoah" and a reverential yet mournful version of John Hiatt's "Have a Little Faith in Me." The music, whether blues or country or identifiable as "folk," is all of a piece, both Frisell and producer Lee Townsend seem to be saying, this is part of what the guitarist does and it's a big and valuable part that draws both inspiration from the soil as well as from the root sources these tunes are either composed from or come from on their own. This is basically the softer and more controversial side of Frisell -- though there are some surprises -- and the one that has registered most popular with listeners who buy CDs. There are three tracks here from the very laid-back and melodic Good Dog, Happy Man, and a pair from Nashville, two of his most successful recordings. But this is a beautiful taste as well as a new way to listen to the way Frisell's own music meets that of the masters, and he acquits himself well. This is a terrific sampler even if it only presents a sliver of the artist's range.