Review: Richard Greene’s: “Shufflin”
The journey from first-chair violin of the Beverly Hills High School Orchestra to an Ice-T recording session is strange enough. But these were just stops along the way, and long forgotten. Richard Greene would rather talk to you about Bill Monroe, or Ornette Coleman, or J.S. Bach—others who tapped into the kind of heady bluegrass mysticism he conjures in his home studio high up above Beachwood Canyon.
Much of Greene’s solo work is occupied by two warring contingencies: There is the orderly, meticulously arranged melodic composition. And then there is the desire to undermine order through extemporization, dissonance, and entropy. This too is the distinct double aspect of Greene’s instrumental style—a tension exists between his classical violin training and that innate, unnamable impulse that tends toward musical rapture. He has both in spades, and works on a practiced collision of the two.
In 1966, at the age of 24, Greene joined up with Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys with all the hazards of this freakish unharnessed ability in tow. Monroe (the stubborn visionary) took a sculptural approach to arranging Greene’s fiddle breaks—carving out the ill-conceived parts that rushed pell-mell from his embryonic musical mind, but leaving all the fire. The results are thought of as highly subversive, and consequently, Greene remains one of the most talked-about fiddlers in bluegrass history. With an infectious enthusiasm, the eager young musician from L.A. inspired Monroe, then in his fifties, to new heights. “We were the best of friends,” Greene says. “Bill Monroe made me.”
Indeed, the Father of Bluegrass seems to wield a kind of chthonic influence over him from the grave. In spite of this, you’ll hear nary a Monroe lick on his latest recording of instrumentals, Shufflin’ (self-released). It’s a collaboration between Greene and the Brothers Barton, two bluegrass wunderkinds from Bakersfield (they are his worthy musical partners). With six originals—three each by Greene and mandolinist Paul Barton–and three appropriately obscure tunes from the Public Domain, it’s all shimmering, virtuosic, conversational small ensemble work.
Shufflin’ is a study in order and musical freedom—what has been Greene’s obsession since his days with Monroe. “For thirty years I’ve been looking for musicians in California to join with who love and respect traditional bluegrass while at the same time being passionate innovators of new hybrid forms,” he writes in the liner notes. With the Bartons, Greene has his own opportunity to help shape two fine young musical talents in bloom. The stripped-down acoustic quartet (rounded out by Loren Barton’s guitar and Jeff Pekarek’s bass) provides ample room for these guys to stretch out and improvise. But the album is grounded by the arrangements, which are a notch above, and the fluid dialogue between the instruments. At the center of all this is Greene’s famously versatile tone, which he uses to move from soaring classical finesse to scratched-up back porch old time within the space of a solo or even a single phrase.
Just as a young Richard Greene inspired Bill Monroe to make some of his most remarkable music, the Brothers Barton have clearly stirred something in their new collaborator. Now in his sixties, Greene shows the same dogged determination and singularity of musical vision that kept Monroe writing and playing straight up to his death at the age of 84. He recorded and mixed Shufflin’ himself, and it’s the second disc he’s released on his own record label. “Our next effort is already underway,” he writes, “stay tuned!”
For more information, or to buy Shufflin’, go to www.richardgreene.net