“Rotten Taters” is, unbelievably, the first solo release from a mandolinist that, despite playing Carnegie Hall and the White House, simply should be more widely known than he is.
There are lots of reasons for making albums, and Mike Compton’s Rotten Taters is one that was made for the best reason of all: because some people wanted to hear it. Fans in Australia pooled the funds and got Compton into a studio to do what precisely what he does best: play the mandolin.
If we’re being entirely honest, Compton can seem like a bit of an anomaly these days, especially with all the attention that Chris Thile is bringing to the mandolin. Thile is an innovator, an experimenter, looking for new territory to conquer, and that is something audiences seem to prise not only of mandolin players, of course, but musicians generally.
Compton, on the other hand, is more of a preservationist, continuing the music that Bill Monroe innovated on the mandolin and which has set the standard for two generations of bluegrass mandolin players. He pays homage to Monroe, though perhaps not always intentionally. As he has said in interview, he just plays what he plays. And what he plays is a style that is based very much in rhythm playing, not lead. It can at times sound rough and unrefined, and for the uninitiated, this album could be somewhat confusing. Many of the pieces here, especially the traditional ones, are repetitive in the way that old time music is (“Hallie’s Hornpipe” and “Torment of Billie” for example). Where jazz music would have a “head” which is then improvised over, here we simply have the “head,” or the main theme of the piece, repeated, with any improvisation being very subtle and limited. It’s not always beautiful in a Hallmark card kind of way—some might unfairly use the word monotonous for some of the moments here—and there are aspects of the work that could be somewhat alienating.
But for mandolin players and fans—the kind of listener that has some idea of what this is and where it is coming from—this recording is pure gold through and through. Given that Rotten Taters is Compton’s first solo release, we’ve only ever heard him in ensemble settings through the screen of others’ creative ideas. Indeed, Compton has made a career playing on the recordings of others, and he once summed up his philosophy of studio work as “do what the man says, collect your money and go home.” Between that and his signature sound lies the reason he has gotten the work that he has. Never one to pull focus, he’s added flavour to many, many fantastic recordings over the years, some of the most notable ones being the last six studio albums of John Hartford, those of the Nashville Bluegrass Band, and the soundtrack to the film O Brother Where Art Thou, as well as a collaboration with the guitar great David Grier.
Through those projects, Compton has rightly earned a reputation as one of the best. Here, for the first time, is pure, unadorned Compton. In some ways, it’s like hearing a great artist for the first time. Tracks like “Ho Do you Want Your Rollin’ Done” and “I’ll Tell you About the Women” seem, in a sense, like portraits of Compton himself, his effervescence and humor laid bare, things which are ever only glimpsed in his sets with Nashville Bluegrass Band. “Forever has Come to an End” is stark and longing, excellently accompanied only by mandolin chords and crosspicking, bringing out the desperation of the lyric. (Compton has spoken glowingly of Tim O’Brien’s work, and “Forever” seems to make a nod in O’Brien’s direction.) “Jenny Lynn” is a tribute to Monroe, remaining very close to Monroe’s style, as is the original piece “Wood Butcher’s Walkabout” (which, incidentally, is like a master class in the slides that are a hallmark of Comptons’ playing).
Ultimately, if this recording isn’t for everyone, it’s also a reminder that no albums ever are, no matter how the critics laud them or how many people buy them. This collection, like Compton himself, is just what it is. It’s a brilliant collection intended for an audience of listeners that share its vocabulary, a fairly specific audience of people that, rightfully, will simply eat it up. It’s a great statement from a wonderful musician that, in the minds of many, has been long and eagerly awaited.