Newport Folk Festival- Best Of Bluegrass 1959-66

Various Artists

Vanguard Records, 2001

REVIEW BY: Duke Egbert


The word has apparently gotten out (and a good thing, too) that yours truly is a fan of and will review acoustic traditional music here at the good ol' "DV". You must be doing something right when the producer sends you CDs directly that or you're the only reviewer north of Louisville who admits bluegrass exists.

Either way, I think I got the best part of the deal here, because Newport Folk Festival Best Of Bluegrass 1959-66 is a snapshot of a musical form in transition, and it's a heck of a lot of fun to listen to. By 1959, the folk music revival championed by artists like Pete Seeger and the Kingston Trio was in full swing, and the first Newport Folk Festival was brought together. Due to the efforts of artists like Seeger and musicologists like Alan Lomax, bluegrass acts were brought in under the wings of folk, and a pairing was born that lasts in some form to this day. American roots music seems to do a very good job of supporting itself in its many forms; Newport may be one reason why.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

These recordings are from the early Newport days, either the 1959-1960 shows or the 1963-1966 shows. After Bob Dylan shocked the folk universe by playing electric in 1965, Newport was never the same. It got big, it got popular, it got noisy, and community opposition shut it down after 1970. And, let's be realistic; with the exception of Flatt and Scruggs, none of these artists ever got rich or knocked Billboard on their ear. But the bluegrass renaissance represented by bands like the Seldom Scene and the Country Gentlemen and the continued viability of the form can be directly traced to bluegrass burning its straight track through the folk scene of the sixties.

I admit, when I opened this CD, that I only recognized a few names. I knew Bill Monroe, both for historical reasons and because of the bluegrass festival south of here in Bean Blossom, Indiana. (I'm going this year.) I knew Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, artists most people only recognize from reruns of The Beverly Hillbillies. But being a recent convert to bluegrass fandom, I'd never heard the Stanley Brothers, whose "Man Of Constant Sorrow" from 1959 puts the current version to shame. This was my first meeting with Hylo Brown and the Timberliners, who provide a blazing version of "Orange Blossom Special". Don Stover was another discovery, and his four never-released tracks are great, especially "Kansas City Railroad Blues". A rare example of early female bluegrass artists is provided by three tracks from Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, recorded in 1966. (I haven't been able to track down if Hazel is any relation to early country singer Little Jimmy Dickens. Interesting if she was.)

This is a well-produced, well-recorded, well-packaged CD. The track selection is excellent, and the sound is better than I expected from recordings of this age. My only quibble, and it's a minor one; the CD is only about a third previously unreleased material. If (and I say if ) more unreleased material was available to the compilers, they might have used it rather than some more commonly heard artists like Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs. Newport Folk Festival Best Of Bluegrass 1959-66 is a wonderful piece of history, and a wonderful piece of music. For fans of American roots music, it shouldn't be missed.

Rating: A-

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© 2001 Duke Egbert and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Vanguard Records, and is used for informational purposes only.