An interesting pair, here: two all-gospel bluegrass albums, one by the 79-year old father of bluegrass, one by a group of third- or maybe fourth-generation hotshots. Comparing the two, it's easy to see why Monroe is held in such respect -- he's well past his prime, yet his album is nonetheless more satisfying overall than the New Tradition's.
The New Tradition are a four-piece featuring some very hot pickers in Richie Dotson (banjo), Danny Roberts (mandolin) and Fred Duggin (guitar). Bassist/lead singer Daryl Mosley is overtly influenced by the soulful style of New Grass Revival's John Cowan. The emphasis here, though, is on quartet harmonies, and other than Mosley the band are serviceable but not inspiring singers. In live performance, they mix the gospel tunes up with secular songs and instrumentals, and I think I prefer that context. All of this is pleasant but rarely exciting; exceptions are the harmonies on "Hear Jerusalem Moan", and some hot instrumental breaks in a few tunes. The album is mixed poorly, too, resulting in mandolin rhythm chops drowning out banjo rolls, and sometimes nearly inaudible harmony vocals. The cover photo is rather annoyingly staged -- it shows the boys picking on the porch, which looks distinctly like a set, and Mosley is playing an acoustic bass even though in concert and on the album he plays bass guitar. It's as though they're trying to show they're real backwoods boys rather than Nashville rats.
Bill Monroe has lost a few steps on his mandolin playing, and a good bit of his high tenor range; furthermore, his current crop of Blue Grass Boys don't hold a candle to most of his previous groups. Guitarist/lead vocalist Tom Ewing is adequate, but no more; Blake Williams on banjo isn't about to make anyone forget Earl Scruggs. The notable exception is veteran Tater Tate, who still plays a tasteful old-timey fiddle and sings bass.
The array of guest stars here, though, is dazzling: Ricky Skaggs, Ralph Stanley, Mac Wiseman, Jim and Jesse, the Osborne Brothers...practically the Bluegrass Hall of Fame All-Stars! It's a real treat to hear Monroe singing with all these fine folks, and picking too -- the Osborne's cut starts out with Bill and Bobby O. doing a duet mandolin break, and Bill and Jesse McReynolds do the same on the album-closing "Are You Lost in Sin?" The harmonies here aren't as polished as the New Tradition's, but are ultimately more effective for that very reason; Monroe and Tate are clearly closer to a participatory gospel tradition than the NT boys. Monroe himself only sings lead on one song, "Baptize Me In The Cumberland River", sticking to tenor on the others. My most serious complaint about this one is length; at 10 tracks it clocks in at just about half an hour (the New Tradition is also 10 tracks and roughly the same length, but it seems adequate there).
Ultimately, this album is not one of Monroe's all-time greats, but it's quite a nice work, all the more impressive considering the length of Monroe's career. He no longer has anywhere near the instrumental or vocal chops that the New Tradition do -- but what he does have he uses perfectly. The New Tradition's album is a disappointing effort from a promising young band; hopefully we can look forward to future recordings from them that adequately capture the energy of their live performances.