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Follow Me Down
Undeniable guitar-mandolin-banjo prodigy Sarah Jarosz caught the bluegrass world’s attention with her 2009 debut, and she cashed in on such explosive stock this year with her sophomore set, Follow Me Down. In doing so, the (still just) 20-year-old Texan is able to explore her expansive influences and to recruit the world’s greatest acoustic players (Béla Fleck, Darrell Scott, Stuart Duncan, Jerry Douglas, and many others) to add impeccable support. Producer Gary Paczosa deserves a note as well for the record’s cozy, aural décor. Jarosz’s hero worship is spot on—the album’s highlights include a Punch Brothers-abetted take on Radiohead’s “The Tourist” and what has to be the single best-ever cover of Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells”. Where Jarosz continues to dazzle, though, is in her evolution as a songwriter, most notably here on the paralyzingly lovely “My Muse”.
4Chris Thile and Michael Daves
Sleep with One Eye Open
In his day job as the leader of the Punch Brothers, Thile does admirable work in blending with that ensemble, sharing the spotlight with his remarkable flankmen. So it’s a special treat to hear Thile in a two-man, mando‘n’guitar-pulling, high-harmonizing face-off, since he is forced to show off at all times, taking a couple of solos on each song. Plus, his duet here with the astonishing guitarist Michael Daves is one dedicated to traditional bluegrass and old-tyme songs. It’s clearly a Monroe Brothers or Skaggs & Rice homage, as all of this material is age-old and the approach is unremittingly reverent. Yet these yayhoos, whose brains function at Mach speed, can’t help but get carried away. Daves, like Thile, plays with incredible velocity and inventiveness, and this session’s shambling, sizzling spirit suggests late nights with a table full of empty bottles and full ashtrays.
Looking for a Home
This year’s dark-horse award goes to this humdinger of an album from journeyman singer Charlie Sizemore, a graduate of Ralph Stanley’s finishing school back in the ‘70s. The good Doctor even shows up here to cameo on “Red Wicked Wine”, one of 14 new recordings that showcases Sizemore’s robust country vocal and first-rate choice of material. There’s a long list of high points here, but the opening salvo “Down in the Quarter” comes on like a bat out of hell and a cover of John Conlee’s “I Don’t Remember Loving You” is sung and played with natural finesse. While the restraining-order baiting “Ashley Judd” is a clever novelty number, the terrific title cut is the most toe-tappingest bluegrass ditty you’ll hear all year.
2Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper
Eight of the last ten IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year awards have gone to the amazing Michael Cleveland, and the phenom from Indiana leaves no doubt why on Fired Up, a spit-shined set of expertly-played bluegrass from some of the most solid pickers in the business. If it’s red-hot bluegrass that you like, you’ll have a hard time beating songs like “Dixie Special” and “Going Back to Old Virginia”. These guys can flat bring it with the best of them, and much of Fired Up rewards multiple listens due to the electricity and precision of the instrumentalists. “Goin’ Up Branch Creek” is a hoot, for instance, an old Buddy Spicher fiddle tune given an irresistible barn-dance arrangement here. Cleveland himself remains a showstopper, the kind of gale-force picker that can inspire the best from his fellow players. Unfortunately, all four of Cleveland’s band members left Flamekeeper after this recording; therefore, the chemistry on Fired Up renders the album all the more valuable, as it apparently turned out to be a once-only event.
1The Gibson Brothers
Help My Brother
Eric and Leigh Gibson might have, pound-for-pound, the most impeccably fine-sounding traditional bluegrass band on the contemporary scene: On their 10th album, the Brothers have recorded another sterling run of bluegrass songs, imbued with a newfound penchant for deeply felt lyrical wisdom, while paying tribute to both their own family lineage and reflecting on the philosophical preoccupations of the modern man. This combination of traditional sounds and contextual depth is part of what makes Help My Brother so good, and it’s a formula that finds the Gibsons continuing to trump themselves time and again. But the rest of the reason these guys can’t lose is that, quite simply, they sound so great. Eric and Leigh sing bluegrass’ tightest harmony blend, and, instrumentally—Eric on banjo, Leigh on guitar, the terrific Clayton Campbell on fiddle, Joe Walsh (no, not that one) on mandolin, and Mike Barber (who co-produced with the Brothers) on bass—the group plays with unmatched alacrity and taste. For this record, a mix of new originals and obscure covers, the boys bring in top-notch support from Ricky Skaggs, Claire Lynch, and Alison Brown, and their new songs are among their strongest yet, including Leigh’s rousing “Help My Brother”, the contemplative “Want vs. Need” (co-written with Tim O’Brien), and “Dixie”, the prettiest song ever written about Elvis’s first high school sweetheart. All told, Help My Brother did more things more impressively than any other bluegrass record of the year, and, as the Gibson Brothers go, that’s something we’ve learned to expect.