Various Artists

The Best of Bluegrass [Sanctuary]

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While no mere 12-track compilation could claim to cover more than a fraction of the "Best of Bluegrass," as relatively brief anthologies of the genre go, this has several things to recommend it. Most importantly, the quality's very good. But also, particularly since it's the kind of sampler apt to be picked up by people who really aren't too familiar with the genre, it serves as a good introductory portal to the music. For one thing, it has a bunch of big names -- Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Hot Tuna, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band -- who might not be primarily associated with bluegrass music by the general popular-music audience. For another, it mixes in some of the leading exponents of the purer side of the bluegrass or old-timey music genre, including Bill Monroe, the Carter Family, Lester Flatt, and Ralph Stanley. And it mixes tracks from various eras, giving listeners at least some idea of the depth of bluegrass history. A good number of classic songs are here, such as the Carter Family's "Wabash Cannonball," Flatt's "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," Stanley's "Oh Death," Monroe's "Orange Blossom Special," and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." So's "Mule Skinner Blues," done here by Parton, many of whose fans would never suspect she could let loose on a traditionally based tune such as this with such natural ease. If you want to nitpick, it might be a little debatable as to how purely bluegrass some of the songs are -- many would classify "Know You Rider" (done here by Hot Tuna), for instance, more readily as a folk or blues tune. The performances are all strong and traditionally based, however, which is ultimately what matters most.

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