Thursday, February 16, 2006
Muleskinner: The Bluegrass "Supergroup"
One-shot band leaves indelible mark on music history
Though not a term used often with bluegrass, Muleskinner was the first and possibly the only supergroup of the genre. Formed somewhat ad hoc - the band was created in 1973, when Richard Greene, formerly of the country-rock band Seatrain, was asked to put together a band for a special show with legendary bluegrass artist Bill Monroe by a local California public TV station.
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Greene, who played fiddle, gathered fellow Seatrain member Peter Rowan on lead vocals and guitar, Bill Keith of Kweskin's Jug Band on banjo, David Grisam from the band Earth Opera on mandolin, and Clarence White, recently released from the Byrds on lead guitar.
The idea behind the show was that Muleskinner would play a set, then Monroe and his band would play, and the two would jam at the end. Greene, Rowan, and Keith all had been members of Monroe's Blue Grass Boys backing band during the mid-sixties - so it was kind of the "Father of Bluegrass" being honored by his "sons." But Monroe's bus broke down and Muleskinner had to perform the whole show on its own.
The result was phenomenal and the band was immediately given a one-album contract by Warner Brothers. The self-titled album has gone in and out of print and is now currently available under the aptly titled CD, A Potpourri of Bluegrass Jams. Much like the set they played for the special, the songs they chose for their only album relied heavily on covers of Bill Monroe classics and traditional bluegrass tunes. But Muleskinner also infused elements from Rock, Country and Jazz, releasing the first bluegrass album to include drums.
Potpourri is so great - it can turn even the most casual bluegrass listener into an instant fan. From the opening jangle of "Muleskinner Blues," Muleskinner grabs the listener's attention and never lets go. Richard Greene's fiddling has to be heard to be fully appreciated and Clarence White continues to amaze with his guitar prowess. While it's hard to pick out favorites, "Opus 57 in G Minor," a stab combining classical with music bluegrass is a standout, as is the country gem "Runways of the Moon."
All the musicians are at their peak, and Rowan's voice is well suited for the material. One can't help but wonder what would have happened had Muleskinner continued. Unfortunately, a few months after the album was released, Clarence White was killed by a drunk driver. The other members continued to pioneer country and bluegrass and occasionally worked together, influencing the new generation of bluegrass bands.
Muleskinner did release another album - or rather a soundtrack of the TV special was released, so the band actually has two CDs available. Only two tracks overlap, so it is almost like having two records by this ground-breaking group. Unlike other "supergroups" Muleskinner lives up to its reputation - fans of bluegrass, country, country-rock or music in general should not be without this band.