Back-to-back bluegrass and blues this weekend at the Empire
Monroe Crossing, the busy, well-traveled Minnesota-based bluegrass band, is celebrating its 10th anniversary year and its 10th CD release, "Heart Ache & Stone," with a tour that Friday night will stop at the Empire Arts Center in Grand Forks....
Monroe Crossing, the busy, well-traveled Minnesota-based bluegrass band, is celebrating its 10th anniversary year and its 10th CD release, "Heart Ache & Stone," with a tour that Friday night will stop at the Empire Arts Center in Grand Forks. It will be their first show here since 2008.
"Once in a while, people will come up and say, 'When are you going to hit the big time?'" Monroe Crossing's mandolin player Matt Thompson said in a telephone interview. "And I always say, 'OK, we're a Minnesota bluegrass group that's playing full time. This is the big time.'"
Thompson and his four bandmates all had played in other bands and knew each other as members of the Minnesota Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association when they got together in the fall of 2000. They debated about a name for quite a while and considered a list of possibilities. What they wanted, Thompson said, was a name that said bluegrass without using the word bluegrass.
What said bluegrass more than the legendary Bill Monroe, a musician who helped develop the style of music that took its name from his band, the Bluegrass Boys, named for Monroe's home state, Kentucky?
And, since they'd all crossed paths because of his music, they called themselves Monroe Crossing.
The band is based out of the Twin Cities area and features Art Blackburn on guitar, lead and harmony vocals, Lisa Fuglie on fiddle, mandolin, lead and harmony vocals, Thompson on mandolin, fiddle and baritone vocals, Mark Anderson on bass and bass vocals, and Benji Flaming on banjo.
After about three years together, the band took a big leap of faith and made their musical endeavor their full-time gig.
"The first year went well. There were some lean months," Thompson said. "But we survived and it just kept going better. Now it's to the point where those lean months really aren't that slow for us anymore. And we all just really love playing music."
Each year the band continues to branch out in its performances. It does about half of its shows in the Midwest, he said, and the other half everywhere else. This year they'll go to Pennsylvania and New York state, perform in 11 cities in 11 days in Canada and perform on a bluegrass cruise to the Caribbean.
Monroe Crossing will sell their new CD, "Heart Ache & Stone," at their show Friday. It's also available at their Web site, monroecrossing.com.
Bluegrass, with roots that go back 100 years into the hills of Kentucky, is particularly popular now, but Thompson says, like jazz, it probably will never be altogether mainstream. Since the 2000 movie "O Brother Where Art Thou" by the Coen Brothers, the group often gets request for "I am a Man of Constant Sorrows." That movie, like "Bonnie and Clyde" and "Deliverance," reminded mainstream music fans that bluegrass was fun and pleasing to the ear.
One of the things many folks don't realize about bluegrass, though, is that beneath its toe-tapping, good-time beats often lie serious themes of poverty, depression and lost love. They don't call it the high, lonesome sound for nothing. And it may have come from the hills of Kentucky, but Bill Monroe hated it when people called it hillbilly music. He and his bands always dressed in suits and ties for performances to avoid that label he so detested, Thompson said.
Just like the early-day bluegrass bands, Monroe Crossing does its show around a single microphone. Of course, it's a much better microphone today, but it lends to band interaction and the old-timey feel. On this tour, they're performing old standards and cuts from their latest release. They always do at least one Bill Monroe song. Their repertoire includes a cover of Prince's "Purple Rain."
The second half of their show will be audience requests. And, as always, they'll be wearing their 1940s vintage neckties.
The award-winning band has been featured as the International Bluegrass Music Association Showcase Band in Nashville and was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 2007. Friday, Trinity Trio will open their show.
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