Another year, another terrific year for bluegrass. We say this every year, admittedly, but it’s never been more true than in 2014. As new music lovers continue to get turned on to the vintage tones of acoustic picking, bluegrass bands old and new are reaching larger audiences, and the summer festival scene is brimming with bluegrass acts and fans who are ready to pogo along to their shows.
Veterans like Del McCoury, J.D. Crowe, and Doyle Lawson continued to tour in 2014 behind some of the most vital recordings of their careers. Other traditionally-minded bluegrass bands recorded solid new material: Rhonda Vincent’s Only Me, Blue Highway’s The Game (celebrating their 20th year as a band), The Lonesome River Band’s Turn on a Dime, and Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper’s On Down the Line are a few fine examples.
The great wave of newgrass legends from the Big Bang of Newgrass in the ‘70s kept on keeping on, representing the golden age of bluegrass where classicism meets trailblazing instrumental genius. John Cowan, in reference to the age he and his cohorts are turning, released Sixty, a star-packed album (which made PopMatters’ Best Americana list for 2014) that finds him still in mountain-high form. Jerry Douglas, Béla Fleck, and Tim O’Brien continued to collaborate, tour, and record at relentless paces and with fresh creative energy. Sam Bush played the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado for the 40th straight year, as the Festival’s organizers Planet Bluegrass pulled off a herculean feat by returning stronger than ever from last year’s historic flooding in Lyons, CO.
This year also breakups and reunions within two of the bands most responsible for multiplying bluegrass audiences in the ‘90s. Yonder Mountain String Band announced the departure of longtime mandolinist and singer Jeff Austin, vowing nonetheless to forge ahead without him. At the same time, the platinum-selling Nickel Creek reformed for a highly successful reunion album and tour, all the while Nickel Creek frontman Chris Thile readied a new Punch Brothers album, The Phosphorescent Blues, due out in early 2015. Also, a revitalized Leftover Salmon dropped a new record, the appropriately titled High Country, at year’s end and officially added Little Feat pianist Bill Payne to the permanent lineup.
Finally, a young breed of progressive bluegrassers and shaggy jamgrass bands laid claim to the next generation of hippies and hipsters. Some of these bands, like Trampled by Turtles and Greensky Bluegrass, with new albums of original material in 2014, graduated to the main stage at megafestivals, as modern bluegrass continued to evolve, getting more experimental and more popular than ever before.
All of it adds up to make 2014 the best year for recorded bluegrass music in quite some time. Here then are the Top Ten bluegrass albums of the year among a very crowded field.
Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen
Frank Solivan and the sterling musicians in the Dirty Kitchen (banjo trickster Mike Munford, extrasensory bassist Danny Booth, and dextrous-digited guitarist Chris Luquette) have been giving the entire bluegrass community the vapors. This happened first with 2010’s red-hot self-titled record, and was then followed with last year’s On the Edge, an expertly-played set of ringers that landed at number one on this very list last year. These albums launched the band to the top of the contemporary scene by combining in-the-pocket instrumental precision, commanding vocals, and soulful songwriting. In 2014, the band went even further, graduating to the Telluride Bluegrass main stage, getting nominated for a Grammy, and releasing another new set of original material with Cold Spell. Guest dobroist Rob Ickes of Blue Highway expands the band’s sound on a few tunes here. The Kitchen cooks up a fresh round of intricate, multipart instrumentals (“Yeah Man”, “Chief Taghkanic”) and refined Chris Thile-esque ballads (“Better (Days Go By)”, “Missing You”). Frank and Co. also exercise their burgeoning clout by calling up appearances from Sam Bush and John Cowan, a duo whose presence makes sense, as Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen have sealed their place as worthy inheritors of the New Grass Revival legacy.
When I’m Free
In the late ‘70s, Hot Rize—the group comprising Tim O’Brien (mandolin/fiddle), Charles Sawtelle (guitar), Pete Wernick (banjo), Nick Forster (bass)—was Colorado’s most popular band. The gorup galvanized the bluegrass community, turning a new generation of music lovers on to what was happening every summer in Telluride, and helping to define a new bluegrass language. This language is both deeply reverent to classic forms (including their honky-tonk alter-egos Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers) yet simultaneously progressive and expansive, incorporating elements of rock and jazz into an ever-evolving repertoire. After ascending to the top of the bluegrass world, like so much self-rising flour, Hot Rize disbanded in 1992 but has reformed occasionally, remaining a popular concert draw and adding the astonishing Bryan Sutton on guitar after the death of Sawtelle in 1999. However, the quartet hasn’t produced any new material since 1992. This 22-year album drought ends with When I’m Free, an album that achieves a seamless continuity with their legacy. Keeping it lean and clean, the quartet displays their intuitive interplay, and mandolinist/fiddler O’Brien offers his trademark relaxed vocals on lovely fare like “You Were On My Mind This Morning” and “A Cowboy’s Life”. Forster steps up for the rockabilly-influenced “Doggone”, and Wernick, Dr. Banjo himself, is turned loose on “Sky Rider”, an instrumental showdown with Sutton. When I’m Free was worth the wait, and when the fellas blend voices on “Glory in the Meeting House”, it feels like they never left.
Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn
Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn
For over three decades, Béla Fleck has multiplied the possibilities of the banjo, continually updating the modern history of the instrument, ingeniously and gracefully integrating those five strings into any genre: bluegrass, rock, jazz, world, and classical, to name a few. Abigail Washburn has restructured her own banjo and lent her windborne vocals to fit a world-hopping span of folk styles. Here, the married couple join musical forces for their first duet album: no other musicians, just dueling banjos and Abigail’s ethereal voice. With these strings they do wed a set of antique mountain tunes, goth-noir murder ballads, and lullabies. (The Banjo Prince can even be heard cooing at one point.) It’s a dusky, delicate collection, although Fleck fans who want banjo fireworks won’t be disappointed either: A reworked “New South Africa”, a live Flecktones favorite, gets the clawhammer treatment and floats aromatically across a century of banjo traditions. Some of the loveliest music you’ll hear all year, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn is the sumptuous sounds of souls and musical spirits entwining.
Into My Own
“I wanted to make an album that only I could make”, said Bryan Sutton upon the release of Into My Own, the flattop master’s fourth solo record. Well, there’s little doubt that only Sutton is capable of such playing: For a decade now, Sutton has been the undisputed king of bluegrass guitar picking, the Head Honcho of the Hammer-On, the Prince of Pentatonics. For most of his career, Sutton has been the well-behaved wingman for Ricky Skaggs, Tim O’Brien, Hot Rize and countless others, but the appropriately titled Into My Own features Sutton front and center, showing off for 50 minutes, just as you’d hoped. Zippy workouts like “Cricket on the Hearth” are here, alongside reels, blues vamps, rags, Travis-picking, and fresh-written tributes to two of Sutton’s heroes, Norman Blake (“Ole Blake”) and Bill Frisell (“Frisell’s Rag”). Sutton is also a fine bluegrass singer, showcased on the trad-grassy “That’s Where I Belong”, live staple “Been All Around This World”, and “Run Away”, to which Bryan clawhammers along on a fretless banjo. And as backing musicians, a player of Sutton’s stature has the pick of the bluegrass litter, so the record in another chance to hear the peerless picking of Sam Bush, the Traveling McCourys, Stuart Duncan, and Noam Pikelny. If it’s bluegrass guitar that really greases your pistons, you can’t reasonably be expected to live without this album.
If Sorrows Swim
A major favorite with the patchouli-‘tween-your-toes set, Greensky Bluegrass is a jam nation favorite whose live shows overflow with wildcat picking and singing, featuring a knack for merging several genres, sweaty-beard jam extensions, and unpredictable setlists. All of this comes courtesy of the bullet-train banjo of Michael Arelen Bont, the eye-of-the-tiger mandolin of Paul Hoffman, the trout-in-a-blender guitar of Dave Bruzza, the liquid-steel dobro of Anders Beck, and the jackrabbit bass of Mike Devol. This Kalamazoo quintet has worked hard to transcend the jamgrass scene by providing a balanced studio attack, first with 2011’s hook-filled Handguns, and now If Sorrows Swim, which showcases a maturing sound. Tracks like mandolinist Paul Hoffman’s driving rock-drama “Windshield” and guitarist Dave Bruzza’s vividly romantic “Wings for Wheels” push the band to new emotive heights. The breakneck rhythms of “Leap Year” combine creative invention with craftsmanlike listenability. The group does get into scrambled grooves, and much of the record produces a fixed clattery pulse that will give their improvisation-loving fans plenty to work with (check out the spacey digressions in “Kerosene”). But with If Sorrows Swim’s soulful melodies, pensive lyrics, and polished arrangements, Greensky Bluegrass has taken another step in attracting new admirers both within and outside bluegrass circles.