Kenny Baker died a couple weeks ago. His loss was fresh in the mind of those at Grey Fox Bluegrass festival, and one album that was mentioned repeatedly was Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe. I try not to read or comment on other reviews of albums, but the Allmusic description of the album started deliciously: "Is this the best bluegrass album ever made?" I will say this: it is the best instrumental bluegrass album ever made.
Much is made of Bill Monroe's presence on the album, and hey - he's a legend, and any time you can get Big Mon to play on an record, it's a win. But let's face it - this is Kenny Baker's show. What's amazing is how tasteful he is. In a whole album of fiddling, there isn't a single self-indulgent note. Even a blistered-fingers romp like "Monroe's Hornpipe" or "Wheel Hoss" feels like Baker playing the tune rather than showing off mile-a-minute virtuosity. Gentler tunes, like "Lonesome Midnight Waltz," are almost elegant. And "Jerusalem Ridge," which features both some mile-a-minute sections and some haunting minor key passages, has for good reason come to be associated with Baker even more than Monroe.
Baker is a masterful player of tunes, not an interpreter. There are no seven-minute jams here that lose the melody only to find it again; the longest track is just over four minutes and most are in the two-and-a-half range. It's professional; each song is fiddle - banjo or mandolin - fiddle again. That could be read as a criticism, but it's refreshing here; the tunes feel almost perfect the way they are, and any frills would just unnecessary. The final tune, "Ashland Breakdown," is a microcosm of the album; Baker takes a melodious break, full of long bow strokes and double-stops, then Monroe takes a typically excellent break, followed by a final Baker solo, which ends suddenly on a double stop, as the rhythm backing falls out. It feels like it ends too soon.