With Mumford & Sons, the Avett Brothers, and any number of their imitators leading a worldwide indie-folk explosion, interest in bluegrass is surging. Certainly, it’s a trend the likes of which we’ve never quite seen: young, handsome scruffs—some of them Brits even—selling millions of records and packing large venues by bringing out banjos. It’s not exactly bluegrass, though, as these Mumford Come Latelys would quickly admit and as longtime traditional bluegrass enthusiasts like to shout from the barntops.
Purists formerly raised similar concerns about progressive bluegrass, newgrass, and jamgrass, when throngs of classic-rock kids discovered bluegrass for the first time by sneaking their bongs into Yonder Mountain String Band shows. Any genre as historic as bluegrass will experience undulations in style and popularity, but we’re certainly at an unprecedented peak of interest, if not in traditional bluegrass music, exactly, at least in bluegrass-oriented acoustic instrumentalism. Case in point, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, the polestar of progressive bluegrass, did not always experience sell-out crowds. This year, however, four-day passes to the festival sold completely out in three-and-a-half hours.
Some of these changes to and overwhelming popularity of the genre show up in this year’s top ten list, but we’ve also made room for the bands for whom the more things change, the more they stay the same. Bluegrass fundamentalism is alive and quite well, much obliged, and some of the form’s most consistent masters produced some of their finest work this year. A ton of titles narrowly missed the list, including newgrass jammers the Infamous Stringdusters’ Silver Sky and Keller Williams’ union with the Travelin’ McCourys, Pick. Darrell Scott reteamed with old cohort Tim O’Brien for the year’s best live bluegrass record, the misleadingly titled We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This.
It was also a year in which we lost two of bluegrass’s most beloved figures, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs, and bluegrass artists paid tribute to the two legends all year, including on the Foggy Mountain Special tribute to Scruggs. You’ll notice that our list is light on women this year, as some of the leading ladies, like Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent, took the year off, but we look forward to the all-girl band Della Mae’s upcoming 2013 release. Finally, popularity boom or not, a heap of young bands are lighting up the scene, and many of those—the Hillbenders, Northern Departure, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades—released noteworthy albums in 2012. So in a busy year for bluegrass, here are the top ten albums of the year. Steve Leftridge
Music to My Ears
By now, Skaggs has won enough Grammys and IBMA awards for his decade-long bluegrass run to fill Stone Mountain. His joyful bluegrass revival continues on the elegant ancient tones of Music to My Ears, a record of crisp takes on standards like Bill Monroe’s “Blue Night”, Don Stover’s “Things in Life”, and a reading of “Tennessee Stud”, introduced as a tribute to Doc Watson. But the album takes some surprising chances with new material, as well, including the Hornsby-ish “What Are You Waiting For” and the compelling “Soldier’s Son”, a duet with—get this—Barry Gibb.
Lou Reid & Carolina
Calling Me Back Home
Lou Reid, as the singer for Quicksilver and the Seldom Scene, is one of the key contributors to the modern sound of bluegrass lead vocals, and he’s a fierce fiddle and mandolin player. Since 1992, Reid has led Carolina, and the current incarnation of bassist/vocalist/wife Christy Reid, banjo whiz Trevor Watson, and guitarist Kevin Richardson is one sturdy group, sounding just terrific on Calling Me Back Home. Reid’s albums with Carolina have long been IBMA favorites, but Calling may well be the collective’s best-yet set of songs, full of classic Nashville melodies and harmonies, as on “Big Old Red Guitar”, while Reid & Co. also prove they can let it rip on tunes like “Carolina Moonshine Man”. Looooouu!
The Boxcars hit the ground running with their debut in 2010, winning a pile IBMA trophies, including the Emerging Artist of the Year award, despite the fact that the individual members have résumés a mile long. In fact, with pros like former Union Station mandolinist Adam Steffey and former New South banjo ace Ron Stewart on board, the Boxcars were a lock to sound excellent. Make it two for two, as the ‘Cars do it the old fashioned way on their sophomore album, All In, trading the mic around on a set of (mostly) original weepers and instrumentals, the whole thing clocking in at a tidy 37 minutes. All In? You bet.
Life Finds a Way
The Grascals have never sounded better, given a hefty boost with the addition of banjo babe Kristin Scott Benson, who gives ball-lightning zip to the songs on the new Life Finds a Way, yet another testament to the profound bluegrass alacrity of this Nashville six-piece of avuncular crowd-pleasers. Jamie Johnson’s hillbilly whine is in peak form on set of terrific original love songs and slices of folk wisdom, along with the group’s knack for watertight covers, this time highlighted by James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James”. And listen to them lay into “Eleven Eleven”, a thorny instrumental that proves that the ‘Scals can bring the barnburning pick-credible bluegrass as well as anyone.
Leave the Bottle
They first perked ears with their bluegrass cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” from their 2008 debut. Now, the Asheville, North Carolina quintet leans into 11 of their own originals, plus a cool Wood Brothers cover, on the Mike Bub-produced Leave the Bottle, a richly traditional offering from these raised-on-rock rascals who are amassing praise from fans and industry insiders alike. They can’t pick circles around their peers (yet), but their third album is the clearest indication so far that they have the beard-in-the-whiskey spirit and the instantly appealing songs to become the next summer-fest big leaguers. A big nod to Phil Barker, one of the best young songwriters in bluegrass.