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Monroe Crossing to take audience back in time

Minnesota Bluegrass group Monroe Crossing will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 12. From left to right are group members Matt Thompson and Benji Flaming on mandolin, Lisa Fuglie on fiddle, Mark Tompson on guitar and Mark Anderson on bass. Submitted Photo

When Monroe Crossing appears on stage at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the historic Chief Theater in downtown Bemidji, the audience will be taken back in time to the late 1940s.

That's when Bill Monroe, the acknowledged father of today's bluegrass music, stepped onto the stage with his band, The Blue Grass Boys, and played to audiences clapping and stomping on the floor.

It does not take a minute to realize that Monroe Crossing, a preeminent bluegrass group noted for being named in honor of Monroe, provides faithful interpretation of Monroe's work, right down to the single microphone and the duds.

As a critic from the Louisville Music News wrote, "This band understands and respects the musical principles laid down by Bill Monroe."

Monroe learned aurally what others take years to learn by taking lessons; he learned at the side of his uncle, who played the fiddle.

Monroe Crossing has taken its mission seriously. In the 11 years since its inception, Monroe Crossing won the 2003 MMA Bluegrass Album of the Year and was inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 2007, to name just a couple of its awards. It is also a featured group on many Carnival Cruise Lines trips, but it is much easier, and a lot less expensive, to see Monroe Crossing right here in Bemidji.

Mike Tangen was instrumental in bringing the group here for a gig.

"I really enjoy the great audience this group brings to Bemidji," Tangen said. "As soon as I announced the show, I got calls from Bigfork and Akeley. There's an audience in this region seeking wholesome, soulful fun, and Monroe Crossing brings those things and more to Bemidji. The audience shows up and (then) goes home smiling."

The group plays a blend of traditional bluegrass, reverent gospel and familiar ballads as the members carefully choreograph themselves in and out and around a single microphone. Based in Minnesota, the group plays an average of 125 shows a year to bluegrass enthusiasts and those who have never really listened to this musical genre.

The group actually coalesced when, as separate musicians, they came together at one point and formed Monroe Crossing. Three of the original players are still with the group. The newest member, Derek Johnson, came on board in January, just in time for those Caribbean cruises. Benji Flaming has been with the group the majority of the time since its inception.

The group is made up of Johnson on guitar, Lisa Fuglie on fiddle and mandolin, Matt Thompson on mandolin and fiddle, Mark Anderson on bass and Flaming on banjo. All the players also sing lead and harmony vocals. They dress in period clothes like 1940s vintage ties, and Lisa will often wear a 1940s hat.

"We have always had a good audience in Bemidji," Thompson said in a telephone interview. "We like an appreciative, demonstrative audience. The theater is really cool -- it's a great theater.

"We just got back from 10 days in Europe where we played in Switzerland and Germany," he said. "Bluegrass in played all over, even in different parts of the world like Japan."

Monroe Crossing is known for doing a lot of first-generation songs. The band is also known for taking songs from other genres and turning them into bluegrass. For instance, Monroe Crossing performs "My Girl" by the Temptations, "At Last" by Etta James and Prince's "Purple Rain.

"The roots of bluegrass go back to the British Isles, southern mountain music and Southern gospel," Thompson explained. "What we know as bluegrass actually started in 1946. That's the year historians pick. When it first started, they just called it country music, and in the '60s and '70s, the Bluegrass name stuck."

Those who would like an evening of unique musical blending of old-time bluegrass with some gospel ("Wings of an Angel" sung a cappella or "Swinging on the Pearly Gates") and standards from the pop music scene can buy tickets now at Overbeek's Electronics and Music, Brigid's Cross Irish Pub and Restaurant, Wild Hare Bistro and Headwaters School of Music and the Arts. All tickets are $17.50. Tickets will also be sold at the door.