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Ricky Skaggs

Solo: Songs My Dad Loved

(Skaggs Family; US: 15 Sep 2009; UK: 28 Sep 2009)


After his mainstream country success in the ‘80s, Ricky Skaggs’s dedication to bluegrass traditionalism has been ardent and complete. Furthermore, as the ringleader of Kentucky Thunder, a finishing school for some of bluegrass’s hottest pickers, Skaggs has been a terrific bandleader and collaborator. Not this time. Songs My Dad Loved is Skaggs’s first solo record—as in every instrument and voice on the record is his—and by that structure and in the selections indicated by the title, it’s the most intimate and personal bluegrass record of the year. Best moments: hearing Skaggs harmonize with himself on “The World Is Not My Home”, the blissful fiddle reverie of “Colonel Prentiss”, the misty banjo instrumental “Pickin’ in Caroline”, the brooding coda of “City That Lies Foursquare”, and two dozen other moments that only a master like Skaggs could pull off. Steve Leftridge



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Claire Lynch

Whatcha Gonna Do

(Rounder; US: 25 Aug 2009; UK: 28 Sep 2009)

Review [13.Dec.2009]


With a wealth of terrific material, including four originals and a selection of choice covers, Whatcha Gonna Do marks an assured, elegant return for veteran bluegrass vocalist Claire Lynch. The highlight is Jesse Winchester’s knee-bucklingly gorgeous “That’s What Makes You Strong”, a duet with the man himself, but throughout the album Lynch’s crisp, dewy vocals ring over a parade of ethereal folk, bluegrass-swing, and mountain waltzes. Bass all-star Mark Schatz helps define the record’s sonic template on rumblers like “Crazy Train” (no, not that one), but at other times, fragrant beauties like “The Mockingbird’s Voice” and “A Canary’s Song” follow a bird motif from unrequited love to a miner’s plight, backed by spare acoustic guitar patterns. Still, it’s the purity in Lynch’s vocal performance, especially on the delightful “Barbed Wire Boys”, that seals the deal on this charming record. Steve Leftridge



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Gibson Brothers

Ring the Bell

(Compass; US: 5 May 2009; UK: 18 May 2009)


A year after their album Iron and Diamonds topped PopMatters’ “Best of Bluegrass” list, Eric and Leigh are back again. The past year has seen a significant personnel change (mandolinist Rick Hayes left the band for a career in luthiery and was replaced with Joe Walsh), but these guys are sounding better than ever, and it’s certainly reflected in the chart-topping success they’ve seen in ‘09. Beginning with “I Know Whose Tears”, a song based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling, and ending with Leigh’s mournful sharecropping song “Bottomland”, Ring the Bell is based in bluegrass traditions, yet simultaneously pushes the genre’s boundaries, exemplified in the loving cover of Tom Petty’s “Angel Dream”.  Juli Thanki



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Sam Bush

Circles Around Me

(Sugar Hill; US: 20 Oct 2009; UK: 26 Oct 2009)

Review [28.Oct.2009]


Newgrass king Sam Bush, after a decade of watching jamgrass noodlers take his progressive trailblazing further into left field, pulled back this year with his most traditional set in a decade. Slammin’ Sammy still offers plenty of what makes him a legend: whirling-dervish mandolin solos (“Blue Mountain”) and nostalgic Telluride Transcendentalism (“Circles Around Me”). But mostly Sam favors old-fashioned, high-lonesome ballads like “Midnight on the Storm” and hotfooting cookers like “Roll on Buddy, Roll On”, both duets with Del McCoury. And on “Whisper My Name”, Sam trades off with banjoist Scott Vestal and guitarist Stephen Mougin on some of the most blistering bluegrass breaks of the year, proving that Sam has circled around in still-peak form with material strong enough to keep summer festival crowds spinning for years to come. Steve Leftridge



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Adam Steffey

One More for the Road

(Sugar Hill; US: 22 Sep 2009; UK: 26 Oct 2009)

Review [9.Dec.2009]


Coveted sideman and session musician Adam Steffey takes center stage and the Number One spot on our list with an album that’s an absolute joy to hear. Steffey, joined by an all star roster of guest musicians and singers including Alison Krauss, Chris Stapleton, Ronnie Bowman, and Dan Tyminski, delivers a collection of solid originals and well-chosen, beautifully sung covers. Steffey’s weathered vocals are a perfect counterpoint to the pure tones of his mandolin, but he’s more than happy to share the spotlight, most notably when he lets Bowman shine on a stunning version of “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” that can easily stand next to Kris Kristofferson’s original. One More for the Road is a must-listen for fans of bluegrass, country, and/or acoustic music; don’t let this one pass you by. Juli Thanki

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