• Revisiting Butch Baldassari's 2002 Blue Moon Over Kentucky Concert with the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra

    Butch Baldassari's Blue Moon of Kentucky Concert with the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra

    NOTE: this article was updated November 9, 2022 with new information discovered in the process of obtaining the music from this historic concert. We originally were told a DVD — music and video — existed, but it turns out only an audio recording was existed, now with the entire concert housed here.

    Twenty year's ago this week, October 26, 2002 to be exact, the late Butch Baldassari appeared in concert with the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra for the world premier of Butch's new work entitled Blue Moon Over Kentucky. It was an epic undertaking that brought to audiences the music of Bill Monroe into an orchestral setting with a mandolin player as part of the production.

    A detailed article and review of the concert by Alan Epstein appeared in the December 2002 edition of Mandolin Quarterly. The Quarterly, founded by Norman Levine (deceased) discontinued operation in 2005.

    When Alan contacted us about the possibility of adding the concert date to the Cafe's "This Day in History" database we saw an opportunity to draw attention to this concert, the music, and to share information with those that might not have even heard of this work. The editor of Mandolin Quarterly when this article was produced was Terry Pender, who was contacted and enthusiastically agreed it was a good idea to share this information once again.

    In researching the concert Alan and I learned some important new information: a CD of the concert exists, and of course, the entire score for the orchestra is intact, both in the possession of Lelia Sinclair Baldassari, Butch's wife. We're working with her so the music can be converted for the web. The process of discovering this was very recent, too soon for it to be ready to show here. When it's ready, we promise the readers of the Mandolin Cafe will among the first to hear this concert again.

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    Orchestral Premier Review: Blue Moon over Kentucky, Blending Bill Monroe Compositions into a Symphony

    By Alan Epstein

    On Saturday, October 26, 2002, a new orchestral piece premiered at Riverpark Center in Owensboro, Kentucky that celebrated the instrumental music written by the Father of Bluegrass, Mr. Bill Monroe. The work was performed by the 55-piece Owensboro Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Palmer, and featured Butch Baldassari as the mandolin soloist. On this historic night in Kentucky, the two styles of bluegrass and orchestral music were blended into a sound that the audience enjoyed and that would have made Mr. Monroe give his vote of approval. The piece was conceived and produced by the well-known Nashville-based mandolin player Butch Baldassari and was arranged by John Mock, Don Hart, and Andrea Zonn. According to the program notes, the new work, in development since 1999, set out to pay tribute to Mr. Monroe and his "Uncle Pen" Vandiver.

    The piece, performed in five movements, included eighteen instrumental numbers that explored the various stages of Mr. Monroe's career. The movements were entitled "Ancient Tones," "Arnold Schultz Blues," "From Scotland to Rosine," "My Last Days on Earth," and "Monroe's Hornpipes."

    The symphony premiered the new work as part of a night of music that was entitled "Bluegrass Homecoming: Echoes of Bill Monroe." The evening began with performances of folk/bluegrass-influenced selections, including Copland's "Hoe Down" from Rodeo and music from Lord of the Dance. This served as a very fitting prelude for Blue Moon over Kentucky, which was the second half of the evening's music.

    "Ancient tones" started things off with an ethereal dream/soundscape that had the orchestra playing "Jenny Lynn" and then featured mandolin solos on "My Father's Footsteps," "Going Up Caney," and "The Dead March." The movement ended with the orchestra somewhat dissonantly playing a very interesting, slow version of "Watermelon on the Vine."

    "Arnold Schultz Blues," the second movement, featured the Monroe compositions that were heavily influenced by big band and the blues. A cello, taking the place of the guitar, kicked-off "Watson Blues," although the instrument seemed a bit overshadowed by the rest of the orchestra. The movement progressed from there into rollicking versions of tunes such as "Bluegrass Special," "Honky Tonk Swing," and "Bluegrass Stomp." The piece continually changed keys and featured the symphony's very strong brass section. Throughout this movement, the mandolin was able to use the microphone to weave in and out of the orchestral fabric, at times taking the lead and other times providing a mandolin "chop" as a fitting back-up.

    "From Scotland to Rosine" provided some of the more familiar and melodic pieces of the evening. Having listened to this music for some time, I very easily recognized the melodies of "Scotland," "Jerusalem Ridge," and one of my favorites of the evening, "Cheyenne." In the latter selection, I smiled when I heard the oboe playing the lines of the surreal vocal from the original Monroe recording of the piece.

    "My Last Days on Earth" was written in 1980 when mortality was setting in—perhaps along with Mr. Monroe's immortality as a musician. The selection was played on a re-tuned mandolin that, as the story goes, accidentally happened to Mr. Monroe one cold day at his cabin outside of Nashville. The melody for this piece was haunting, and the lush orchestration fit this young orchestra's style very well.

    "Monroe's Hornpipes" was the up-tempo finale that truly set out to celebrate the music of this American master. The tunes included "Roanoke," "Big Mon," and "Monroe's Hornpipe," and they lead to the very exciting finish with the Monroe classic "Rawhide." With a nudge or two from Baldassari, the orchestra provided a fitting back-up band for his exciting mandolin playing, and when the piece was over, the audience reacted very warmly with a standing ovation.

    Bluegrass music and the music of Bill Monroe have long been on the left-hand side of the "mainstream" music scene and often treated as a novelty. As we enter a new century, things are rapidly changing. In the past few years, bluegrass and old time music have taken giant strides to gain new audiences that may have never bothered to listen before.

    This performance of Blue Moon over Kentucky by Butch Baldassari and the Ownesboro Symphony will help to make the music of Bill Monroe an even larger part of a heritage that is truly American.

    Additional Information

    Mandolin Quarterly

    Mandolin Quarterly
    Comments 8 Comments
    1. Joe Parker's Avatar
      Joe Parker -
      Looking forward to this, thanks for posting!
    1. Don Grieser's Avatar
      Don Grieser -
      Thanks Scott and Alan for reminding us all what a great and innovative player Butch Baldassari was. I'm very excited to for the chance to see and hear this performance. I got to meet Alan at Monroe Camp and we both shared our appreciation for Butch's music and his teaching. We all need to remember him. Thanks!!!
    1. sgarrity's Avatar
      sgarrity -
      Can’t wait to hear this!
    1. J.C. Bryant's Avatar
      J.C. Bryant -
      Butch Baldassari was a great mandolin player but was above all that, IMO, a good man!
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Update on this project. Turns out there is only an audio recording, but spectacular for sure, and worth listening to which is what I'm doing right now. But, there are still hurdles to clear and decisions to come from the owner of all of this so stay tuned.
    1. Don Grieser's Avatar
      Don Grieser -
      I can only imagine the legal web with all the parties involved and the adapted tunes, but whatever it takes, this should be released.
    1. Mandolin Cafe's Avatar
      Mandolin Cafe -
      Turns out, unexpected things happened a few hours after posting that. I was pretty sure this was dead in the water but now that music is going to get heard. It's just spectacular, all the way round, from the symphony and in particular Butch's playing which was superb.
    1. bbcee's Avatar
      bbcee -
      Great news! Cant wait to hear it - like many, I'm a huge BB fan, and also intrigued by the approach.