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Bluegrass music was cool decades before the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album became a hit, and this meticulously assembled (by Gregg Geller) and thoughtfully notated (by Billy Altman) four-CD set makes it abundantly clear.

The 109-song collection kicks off with a 1929 recording of the traditional instrumental tune, "Soldier's Joy," by Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers. For intensity and pure musical drama, it puts most of today's popular music to shame. Another priceless gem is 1925's "Don't Let Your Deal Go Down Blues," by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, the oldest song contained herein.

This set traces some of the wonders of bluegrass history: from Flatt and Scruggs to Ricky Skaggs; the brothers Bailes, Stanley, Louvin and Osbourne; the Carter Family, the Clinch Mountain Boys and Grandpa Jones; the immortal Bill Monroe (nine tunes); and the '60s hippie revivalism of The Byrds (four tracks).

Late-model Appalachian sounds are well represented by the O'Kanes, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band, the Dixie Chicks, Rhonda Vincent and the incomparable Patty Loveless, who harmonizes beautifully with Skaggs on "Daniel Prayed."

Die-hard fans of bluegrass and old-time music will be grateful that this collection includes rare tracks by the Coon Creek Girls, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, Carl Story, Jack Youngblood and Carl Butler & The Webster Brothers, among others. Music geeks are bound to quibble about the song selection--what, no Doc Watson?--but this wonderful set will proverbially provide hours of enjoyment.

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