Various artists

Big Mon: The Songs of Bill Monroe (Skaggs Family Records)

This heartfelt tribute to the man known as the father of bluegrass is at its best when its performers infuse Monroe's material with new vitality without trampling the compositions' stark and subtle charms. The best example of this balancing act is Dwight Yoakam's rendition of "Rocky Road Blues," on which the singer's ornery Appalachian drawl provides the perfect vehicle for rambling down the highway of heartbreak, a topic as necessary to bluegrass as hushpuppies are to fried catfish. Similarly successful is Bruce Hornsby's contribution, a sensitive but unsentimental reading of "Darlin' Corey" that should serve as an eye opener for listeners sore at Hornsby for the ubiquity of "Mandolin Rain" on light-rock radio.

More surprising is "My Little Georgia Rose," on which Travis Tritt supplies a vocal performance so unexpectedly understated it practically purrs. An equally pleasant surprise is "On the Old Kentucky Shore," which pairs Ricky Skaggs with Joan Osborne, of all people, in a manner which may prompt redneck males to pine for another Lilith Fair as though it were a monster-truck rally. The Dixie Chicks add just enough Southern spunk to "Walk Softly on My Heart," while Dolly Parton lends her distinctive trill to the short but sweet "Cry, Cry Darlin'."

Slightly less satisfying is Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Blue Night," on which the singer's breathy croon is easier to admire than to embrace. That's nothing, though, next to John Fogerty's "Blue Moon of Kentucky," delivered in a whine so nasal that the former Creedence frontman sounds like a Midwestern grandma caught in a laundry wringer. Equally offensive is Charlie Daniels' affected "I Am a Pilgrim," which proves only that the singer (whose faults here include slurred consonants and a vibrato wide enough to pilot a Peterbilt through) had better stick to his day job peddling right-wing rhetoric to any C&W-oriented rag that'll have him. Despite these flaws and the presence of more Ricky Skaggs than anyone other than his closest kin need to hear, this disc generally accomplishes its mission, furthering Monroe's legacy without whoring it out to contemporary commercial trends.

 
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