Three Wise Men 

Phillips, Grier and Flinner are the essential trio of bluegrass

Apart from the obvious joy of discovery, one of the best things about getting into a new and previously unfamiliar genre of music is following the threads that lead to related artists. Poring over liner notes and album thank-you lists leads to trial listens at the record store and educated guesses on new album purchases, and before you know it a growing collection of Brazilian psych-rock or Saame folk music or whatever has accreted around a single starting point.

The pioneering work of Bill Monroe, of course, is one of the main thoroughfares into the world of bluegrass, maybe more like the Camino Real that connects all who came before with everything that came after. If you’re into bluegrass even a little bit, you almost certainly have some Bill Monroe lying around; maybe a knowledgeable friend pulled your coat to 1996’s True Life Blues: The Songs of Bill Monroe. And if you were paying attention to your liner notes (you were paying attention to your liner notes, weren’t you?), you recognize the name of virtuoso bassist Todd Phillips as the album’s producer. Phillips won his second Grammy for producing True Life Blues. He received his first in 1983 as a member of The New South.

And if the name of David Grier rings a bell, it might be because he’s a seven-time winner of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Guitar Player of the Year award. In addition to the four solo albums to his credit, he’s also made appearances on over 85 albums by artists such as Tim O’Brien, Mark O’Connor, Jerry Douglas and John McEuen. Like Bill Monroe, these are names that come up whenever and wherever bluegrass is talked about.

Matt Flinner is arguably best known as a regular member of the Judith Edelman Band and as a past member of Tony Furtado’s hellawhoopin’ bluegrass ensemble Sugarbeat. But that’s a little like admitting that Branford Marsalis is best known for playing with Sting; Flinner is also a two-time Winfield National Champion (for banjo and mandolin) and his solo debut, The View from Here was met with almost unanimous plaudits from fans and bluegrass authorities alike.

Get these three made men of bluegrass together and something rather surprising happens: a refreshingly democratic lack of orthodoxy. Phillips, Grier and Flinner compositions skid off the bluegrass trail and into jazz territory and the unmistakable signatures of Celtic music at the slightest provocation. The nine originals on the trio’s self-titled Compass Records debut flow with carefully crafted but loose structures that tear through changes and time signatures and leave plenty of free-floating open space for leads and improvisation. No ball-hogs here, though; everyone is equally responsible for coming up with strong leads and providing solid backup. Each member brings three originals to the table, but the conversations that ensue are dominated by no one.

An excellent CD by a volcanically talented trio, and an excellent booster shot for the January blues. Pretty thin on the liner notes, but that’s all right. Phillips, Grier and Flinner still take you places.

The Missoula Folklore Society presents Flinner, Grier and Phillips in concert Wednesday, Jan. 31 at 8 in Union Hall Theater, 208 Main. Tickets are $12 advance, $13 at the door, with a $2 discount for MFS members.

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