Mike Compton calls the music he and David Long play on their wonderful new album “bluegrass in reverse.” “Stomp” ( Acoustic Disc ), released March 7, features the mandolins, guitars and voices of Compton and Long on 17 songs, some original, several by Bill Monroe, and a good many that date as far back as the 19th century. The general idea, Compton says, is to recreate the sounds that Monroe would have heard before he singlemindedly, if not singlehandedly, invented bluegrass back in the 1930s and '40s.
It would be hard to imagine two musicians better equipped to tackle such a project. Compton, whose steady gig is with the Nashville Bluegrass Band, is one of the premier mandolinists now working. Anyone who’s heard the soundtrack from “O Brother, Where Art Thou” knows his work, even if they don’t know his name. He’s also probably the best living interpreter of the hard-driving Monroe style of mandolin. Long has been touring with Compton as a duet act for about three years, and, at 31, is one of the brightest stars in the bluegrass/old-time music firmament.
In a recent phone interview from his Nashville home, Compton, 50, talked about the genesis of “Stomp”: “It’s white and black string-band music pretty much. A good many of the things that David and I have been listening to—the music that really made us want to go into this project—were the white string bands that came along just prior to Monroe. And there were the black musicians who were heavily influenced by white hillbillies as well as by their own culture. Back then a lot of the musical tradition was shared by blacks and whites alike, and a lot of that music came out right when the paths were starting to split.”
There is a lot of virtuoso playing on “Stomp,” but all the songs have the straightforward feel of two people making music for fun without a lot of studio tricks. “I’m pretty simpleminded when I sit down and put a mandolin in my lap,” Compton said. “I understand more complex music, I appreciate it, but I don’t identify with it. And that’s not what I think about when I sit down and decide to play some tunes for myself. A lot of this is being able to identify with the culture, or at least the sound. It’s not a matter of 'Is it good or bad or valid or invalid?' If I can understand what they’re saying, then that’s what counts with me.
“Oddly enough, when Monroe came along, he was really playing an upscale version of old-time music. I guess in a sense it was the pop music of the day. Everybody complained about him playing fast, too. He really ruffled a lot of feathers around the Opry whenever he came in—all the old guys, the Fruit Jar Drinkers and that bunch, they were the big deal around there, guys like Sam and Kirk McGee. They were the hotshots, and then Monroe came storming in and pretty well just leveled all that.”
Here’s Compton’s play-by-play on the songs of “Stomp”:
Evening Prayer Blues: “It’s one of the standard things that everybody listens to by Monroe. It’s got a lot of different aspects of his style as far as drones and down strokes and tremelo and open strings. I was curious about where he’d got it, and once I found out that Deford Bailey [a harmonica player who was the first African-American to join the Grand Ole Opry] had written it, I tried to find a recording of Deford’s. Once I found that, I sat down and listened to it for about a week. I can see where Bill got it, but he really put some Kentucky white boy on it and squared it off quite a bit. I don’t know, the historical origin of that stuff matters to me more than it might to some people, but I think it establishes where it came from and where it went.”
Mississippi Bound: “I always thought the Delmore Brothers wrote it, but apparently not. I don’t know who did. David brought that in and said he wanted to do it, and of course being from Mississippi, I was inclined to see what we could do with it. It’s a good little old song.”
Ashland Breakdown [A Monroe instrumental]: “What we’ve been doing recently is pairing mandolin and mandola [a member of the mandolin family; a mandola is to a mandolin as a viola is to a violin]. ‘Ashland’ is just a good solid musical statement. Hardly anybody does it anymore. We were looking for something that could be used as a duet. We just liked the tune. We still do it. Lot of times we open with it. It’s a good solid piece of music that sets the mood. You can go most anyplace from there.”
Every Humble Knee Must Bow: “I got that on a used record by a group called the New Gospel Keys—two black guys on the cover, both of them blind, sort of standing there on the street in the picture, and one of them plays the accordion on the record. I played it for the Nashville Bluegrass Band, and we do it as part of the gospel portion of our show. We do it with a sort of a bluegrass sound. It has more to do with the sound than anything else.”
Old Mountaineer [Monroe instrumental]: “The version I’ve got of it came from a tape of Monroe playing it on the tour bus. You can hear the bus running in the background. What struck me about that recording and what made me want to learn it was Monroe’s tremelo, the way his right hand was working. The up and down strokes were almost imperceptible on the recording. I thought, man, if I can learn to play a tremelo that sounds that much like one long note, I’ll die a happy man. That’s what struck me the first time I heard that, I thought, 'Godamighty, how can he do that?' So I learned the tune just for that reason. And I can do it once in a while, although I didn’t do it on that recording. You just really have to be synched up with the universe to be able to get that right.”
Big Indian Blues [a Compton original]: “I was living in New York state [in the late '80s] and doing some caretaking work. I’d just dropped out of the Nashville Bluegrass Band [he rejoined in 2000] at that time, and I just moved up there so I wouldn’t have to play music anymore. I just figured music was a frivolous activity. And in the process of living up there and drinking too much brandy, it dawned on me that I either had to play music or be a miserable son of a bitch. So that was one of the two tunes that came out of that year living up there. It’s a sort of therapeutic reminder of how important music was at that point, the realization that it’s a large part of who I am and that I have to continue to do it whether I make money at it or not. It’s not so much an aptitude as a focus, and the reason for it I don’t know. The people who want to learn it think it’s some big cosmic secret that we’re keeping from them, but it’s no such thing.”
The Old Ark’s A-Moving: “That’s an old spiritual off [musicologist and record collector] Joe Bussard’s album [‘Down in the Basement: Joe Bussard’s Treasure Trove of Vintage 78s, 1926-1937’]. We were just looking for something in a gospel vein that we could use onstage to get people involved. That was a shoo-in. There are several other versions of that song by early 20th-century black gospel groups, with gospel content in the verses. The version we have has four sort of frivolous verses to it. I think we’ll learn some of the other verses, too. Music is a spiritual pursuit. I suppose competition is in our heredity, but it gets hooked up to sports paradigms, and it’s not a contact sport, damn it. It’s supposed to be fun and an uplifting form of communication and interaction, and that aspect has been all but taken out of it.”
January Nightmare: “That’s a David original. He’s a good little guy. He’s real upbeat and he’s a good-looking guy, and he’s smart and energetic, and some of this adult pain just jumped on him and he did everything he could to fight it off. It sort of overloaded his brain and this tune popped out of his head. A sort of self-defense against what he was feeling, just a way to get it out of his system a little bit.”
Stomp: “We recorded the album in four days at [producer] David Grisman’s house. At one point, I was holding this octave mandolin that I had never played before, and I was just sitting there banging on it, and Grisman says, ‘Why don’t you just play something, man? Just make something up.’ So I just started banging away on that. He called it ‘Stomp.’ That basically is a Monroe down-stroke version of ‘Trouble in Mind'.”
How Do You Want It Done: “That’s from Big Bill Broonzy. I was intrigued because it sounds to me a little like white material done by a black guy. Real early Big Bill, and the guitar playing sounds like hoedown guitar playing. Not like the blues stuff. Pretty much all played with a flatpick down close to the bridge. I liked it, and the verses were simple.”
Vicksburg Stomp: “That’s by Charlie McCoy. David brought that in. That was part of the material we learned together. I’ve had that material around for a long time and forgotten about it, and David brought this in and jogged my memory. Since that came through here I’ve bought everything I could find on Charlie and Joe McCoy, which included some of the work Charlie did with the Mississippi Mudsteppers and some with Bo Chatmon. He played with all the members of the Mississippi Sheiks.”
Black’s Run: “That’s played on basically a cello banjo. It’s an Orpheum—it’s huge. That was an afterthought. I played it twice. Grisman has stuff set up all over his house. That was sitting there and I started messing with ‘Black’s Run,’ and Grisman said, 'Yeah, let’s cut it.' We were basically on our way out to the airport. That tune came about when I was working with John Hartford. I was driving the bus at that point—I’d worked my way up to lead bus driver. I went by a sign late one night, I think up in Virginia, that said Black’s Run on it, and it had that Civil War sound to it, and I thought, now there’s a good title. I basically just started writing the tune in my head to keep from going to sleep. And miraculously remembered it the next day.”
Centipede Hop: [In the liner notes, Long and Compton explain that each wrote a song and when they played them for each other, the songs were almost identical.] “That sort of thing is inevitable when you get two guys playing the same dialect, the same language, I suppose, the same vocabulary.”
Standing on Jesus: “I don’t know where that came from originally. We went around for a long time saying that came from Big Joe Williams. I don’t know why, since all the songs I’ve ever heard Big Joe do were about his pecker. I thought, well, here’s one about Jesus—must be remorse involved.”
Sweet Lizzie: “It’s the old jazz standard, ‘Sweet Sue.’ This is a black string-band version of it. ‘Sweet Lizzie’ comes off a Tommy Bradley-James Cole CD on Document. There’s very little known about them. They cut maybe a dozen songs. It’s thought that they were from East Tennessee. Their material is a mix of black and white string-band stuff. They do 'Bill Cheatum,' and then later some stuff on piano.”
Prison Blues: “That’s off an Alan Lomax field recording. It’s just a bunch of floating verses that an inmate was singing sans instruments, real lonesome haunting stuff, and we just put some music to it.”
Tanyards [a Monroe instrumental]: “That’s one of my favorites. It’s complicated, it says a lot. I’ve been working at learning that thing since the early '80s. Didn’t have it right. It’s got a lot of moves in it that were typical of what he was writing at that time, a lot of the phrases that he uses. It’s almost a whole vocabulary unto itself. That one jogs a little something different in me than some of the others. The story I get out of it is, it’s a sort of foreboding feeling until you get to the third part, and it breaks into the major chord and it’s almost as if he’s pulling out of this thing, he’s finally escaped the clutches of it, and at the end of that section it goes right back into that minor thing and that repetition thing all over again. Boy, he’s almost escaped from this thing and it’s got him again. That’s reading a lot more into it than there probably is, but that’s the way it strikes me. But that’s the beauty of what Bill did. It’s open-ended and it can be interpreted as many ways as there are people who hear it.”