The Folkways Years, 1964-1983
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Other than Ralph Stanley and Jimmy Martin, the self-proclaimed "King of Bluegrass," it's difficult to conceive of a more distinctive bluegrass singer than the late Red Allen. His voice defined the high lonesome sound of the music Bill created from the ground up. This set is actually Allen's debut for Folkways in 1964, and it is rounded out with six outtakes from the same session and selections from four subsequent albums for the label — 28 tracks in all. It's a hell of a value. From the opening roar of "Little Maggie," with Allen going for the top of his range, letting his voice crack just enough to wring all the drama for the song and lay it in the listener's lap. His singing is pure tradition. Unlike his pals the Country Gentlemen, Allen sticks to Monroe's original model as practiced by Stanley and him. It is noted often that to hear bluegrass in all its majesty you have to listen to the gospel tunes. Allen makes a serious case for that here with his "Are You Washed in the Blood?" His voice calls down fire and brimstone and begs the question of the listener with such intensity and purity of intent its difficult not to be moved by the emotion. And then there's "I'm Just Here to Get My Baby out of Jail," a down in the grass blues. It's a pleading tune, one of forlorn loneliness; you can feel this man beg for his woman. At only two minutes and 11 seconds, it's one of the most powerful songs on the whole set. Allen's other gift — as if he needed another one with that voice and his rock-steady rhythm guitar playing — was his ability to take a country song, one from the tradition, and transform it into a bluegrass angel. The evidence of this is on Allen's reading of "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again." I can hear Merle Haggard sing this still and cannot for the life of me fathom how Allen takes this beautiful country ballad and turns it into a mid-tempo bluegrass cruiser. The song remains honest, the emotion and the longing is not reduced one measure by this shape shift, but it remains a cipher, a song within a song that marries two traditions together without seams. Ultimately, this exhaustive collection is the best of Red Allen, and nothing more is needed except by fanatics.
Born: June 26, 1934 in Emory Gap, TN
Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s