AFTER ALL these years, bluegrass legend Bill Monroe is still playing mandolin and still inspiring rising generations of musicians. Here's a look at Monroe's latest recording plus several fine albums by artists who've clearly learned a thing or two from him over the years.
BILL MONROE & THE BLUEGRASS BOYS -- "Bluegrass '87" (MCA 5970). Monroe's mandolin sounds as feisty as ever on "The Long Bow," an aptly titled showcase for fiddlers Buddy Spicher and Bobby Hicks, as well as on the intricately arranged "Jekyll Island." And he's in fine voice, too, lending high tenor harmonies to two of the album's strongest performances, "Mighty Dark to Travel" and "The Old Crossroads." Another highlight is a shamelessly old-fashioned ballad called "Music Valley Waltz," which Monroe wrote with John Hartford. Also on hand are Jim and Jesse McReynolds, on guitar and mandolin, and guitarist Del McCoury.
THE NASHVILLE BLUEGRASS BAND -- "My Native Home" (Rounder 0212). To detect Monroe's influence, look no further than mandolinist Mike Compton's brisk salute "Monroebillia." The balance of the album offers an eclectic mix: two Monroe classics ("Blue and Lonesome" and "Doghouse Blues"), a pair of finely honed gospel quartets, a remembrance or two of Lester Flatt and a lovely version of Jesse Winchester's "Brand New Tennessee Waltz." Besides playing with feeling and finesse, the quartet boasts some of the closest harmonies in bluegrass.
THE JOHNSON MOUNTAIN BOYS -- "Let the Whole World Talk" (Rounder 0225). Despite personnel changes, this band just gets better and better. For one thing, tenor Dudley Connell has never sounded more soulful than he does on the title track, his voice closely shadowed by the twin fiddles of Eddie Stubbs and David McLaughlin. Another plus is McLaughlin's open-hearted vocal on Jim and Jesse's "Virginia Waltz," and his accompanying mandolin solo. The album also draws strength from tunes by Don Reno, the Lilly Brothers and several topnotch originals.
THE WHITSTEIN BROTHERS -- "Trouble Ain't Nothin' But the Blues" (Rounder 0229). If you're a sucker for tight sibling harmonies a la the Everlys and tasteful string-band music, then count yourself a fan of the Whitsteins. Although their sound brings to mind country music's once popular guitar and mandolin duos, there's nothing the least bit dated about the Whitsteins' interpretations of, say, "Trouble in Mind" or "Freight Train Boogie." In a more contemporary vein, "My Baby Came Back" and "Showboat Gambler" make wonderful use of a band that includes dobroist Jerry Douglas, guitarist Tommy Goldsmith and fiddler Blaine Sprouse.
BILL EMERSON AND PETE GOBLE -- "Tennessee 1949" (Webco WLPS 0123). Emerson, a banjo legend and one of the founding members of the Country Gentlemen, and Goble, a prolific bluegrass songwriter, make for a winning combination on this locally produced album. Emerson has come up with a couple of tasty instrumentals, but it's Goble's honest, often sobering lyrics and Emerson's sensitive accompaniment that provide most of the highlights. Additional backing and harmonies are supplied by an impressive cast that includes dobro player Mike Auldridge and mandolinist Jimmy Guadreau.
DOYLE LAWSON AND QUICKSILVER -- "The News Is Out" (Sugar Hill 3757). As in the past, the combination of Lawson's crisp mandolin, Scott Vestal's hot banjo and Russell Moore's affecting vocals make this set thoroughly enjoyable. However, this album, the band's seventh, also benefits from guest players Jerry Douglas (on dobro) and fiddler Glen Duncan, plus a solid collection of bluegrass standards, original instrumentals and a couple of old-fashion gospel trios.