2010 was a year that saw a variety of progressive bluegrass bands pushing the borders of bluegrass further than ever into genre-defying directions. Purists will continue to argue that bluegrass instrumentation alone does not bluegrass make, but everywhere you looked this year, string-band musicians kicked against (or became bored by) traditionalism’s rigid boundaries and delved into subspecies like jamgrass, jazzgrass, chambergrass, avant-gardegrass, etc. At the same time, mainstream country acts, both young (Dierks Bentley) and old (Joe Diffie), made bluegrass-influenced records in seeming reaction to the pop-metal revolution underway over on country radio.
It was also a year that saw some noteworthy upheavals. Chris Stapleton, lead singer and chief songwriter for the SteelDrivers, left the band just before the release of their sophomore album. They replaced him with the similar-sounding Gary Nichols, but the SteelDrivers’ future without Stapleton is in doubt, to say the least. Similarly, Cadillac Sky frontman and main writer Bryan Simpson announced his departure from the band, citing an insatiable love for Jesus (!), but C-Sky will also continue on, replacing Simpson with Levi Lowery.
All in all, it was a banner year for bluegrass. With so many of the genre’s most exciting bands in action in 2010, bluegrass fans were offered quite a smorgasboard, and whittling down dozens of notable releases into a Top Ten list required some heartbreaking cuts. Chair-loving Minnesota beardos Trampled by Turtles created waves with their ‘shroom-friendly brand of thrash-grass on the fun but uneven Palomino. Cadillac Sky’s experimental Letters in the Deep, produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, was interesting if not entirely listenable. Several classical-influenced bands dropped virtuosic efforts that narrowly missed our list, including Crooked Still’s elegant Some Strange Country, fiddle prodigy Alex Hargreave’s cameo-packed debut Prelude, and Decemberists offshoot Black Prairie’s self-titled debut, the best gypsy-klezmer-newgrass album of the year.
The New Grass godfathers stayed busy in 2010. John Cowan, in exultant voice, continued his hot streak with The Massenburg Sessions, a live-in-the-studio set with his stellar touring band, although Johnny C missed his beloved Telluride Bluegrass Festival for the first time in eons to play bass for the Doobie Brothers’ summer tour. Sam Bush hit the road in support of last year’s Circles Around Me, and Bela Fleck continued his African adventures, releasing a second installment of Throw Down Your Heart.
It was a good year for banjos in general, in fact. Americana buzz acts like the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons played sold-out tours, slinging their alt-folk banjos for rock fans far and wide. Steve Martin toured, too, staging a double-banjo attack alongside the Steep Canyon Rangers’ Graham Sharp, and Martin became the banjo’s great ambassador by establishing the Steve Martin Award for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, with Punch Brothers’ Noam Pikelny selected as the award’s first recipient.
Even though progressive sounds defined much of the year in bluegrass, it was an equally satisfying year for traditional albums, many on the bubble for this year’s Top Ten. Rhonda Vincent released Taken, her solid new album on her own startup label after a decade at Rounder. Tim O’Brien put out Chicken & Egg, a history lesson in American folk styles and his most spirited recording in years. Purists found much to love on new albums from Audie Blaylock & Redline, Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, and Balsam Range. Finally, the year’s most promising young band was Missouri upstarts the Hillbenders, winners of last year’s Telluride Band Contest, who this year released their enjoyable full-length debut Down to My Last Dollar. Now the year’s Top Ten.
Up on the Ridge
(Capitol; US: 8 Jun 2010; UK: 28 Jun 2010)
Up on the Ridge
Not authentically bluegrass enough, you say? Oh, stop it. Sure, Up on the Ridge has the slick sheen of a major-label Nashville release and incorporates as much country as genuine bluegrass, but give Bentley credit for his about-face return to acoustic music. Plus, there’s still enough barn-burning bluegrass here to put you in the shade. By including a wealth of first-rate material (Dylan, Kristofferson, U2) and by accumulating a busload of the world’s best pickers (Sam Bush, the McCourys, Punch Brothers, Bryan Sutton, Tim O’Brien, Alison Krauss), this thoroughly entertaining album is a bluegrass celebration.
A few years back, John Cowan had a dobro player who could step up and play breakneck solos and sing tenor harmonies over Cowan, a feat previously thought impossible. It was obvious that Randy Kohrs wouldn’t be a sideman for long, and Quicksand is his most impressive play yet to join the pantheon of bluegrass heroes. Kohrs surrounds himself with a long list of ringers like Scott Vestal on banjo, Adam Steffey on mandolin, and Tim Crouch on fiddle, while Kohrs himself is a deft picker who boasts a clear, effective tenor. There are several high-water marks here, none better than “Time and Time Again”, a slamming piece of bluegrass dynamite.
Lonesome River Band
Few acts have been as successful as the Lonesome River Band at smoothly advancing bluegrass into the contemporary scene without losing the traditional elements of the genre. And although they’ve gone through a number of personnel overhauls, their alacrity for arrangements, vocal harmonies, and instrumental flash are as keen as ever on Still Learning. Singer and guitarist Brandon Rickman’s title cut is honeydew smooth, and cookers like “Jack Up the Jail” and “Pretty Little Girl” prove that these pros might still be learning, but they’re as close to masters of the form as it gets.
(Nonesuch; US: 15 Jun 2010; UK: 14 Jun 2010)
Punch Brothers, the band of morbidly talented musicians fronted by mandolin wizard Chris Thile, are all about squirreling their way into the farthest reaches of string-band experimentation, often getting lost in the forest of all that spine-curving instrumental genius. No one spazzes out like C-Theezy! Not your grandfather’s bluegrass? This isn’t even your bluegrass. It’s the bluegrass of a future generation born with their brains turned 30 degrees in their heads. Yet Antifogmatic, for all of its time-shifting prog-grass complexity and falsetto-and-tremolo digressions, holds together as a cohesive album of actual, you know, songs, from the enchanting ballad “Alex” to the hoot-‘n’-holler stomp of “Rye Whiskey”. The Brothers P can morph into tribute bands of the Stanley Brothers or Radiohead with equal alacrity, but their own original material on Antifogmatic is fascinating stuff, wherever it falls on the spectrum.