2008 has been a fantastic year for bluegrass. New blood has injected life into the genre, and the veterans of the scene are at the top of their game. Traditionalists may argue with some of the more progressive albums on this list—Chatham County Line and Punch Brothers, especially—but this newest generation of bluegrass musicians stretches the boundaries of the genre, easily incorporating rock, jazz, soul, Americana, and classic country. For those not entirely enamored with this new sound, there were some amazing albums released that stay true to the classic bluegrass sound. The end of 2008 brought bluegrass music several changes among the lineups of several A-list bands (Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, the Grascals, and others); one can only wonder what effects these changes will have on the music released in the coming year.
Iron & Diamonds
(Sugar Hill; US: 8 Apr 2008; UK: Available as import)
Eric and Leigh Gibson are hands down the best duo in bluegrass music today, and Iron & Diamonds is their strongest effort to date. A mix of unique originals and widely varying covers which include songs by Tom Petty and Steve Earle are performed with the Gibsons’ soaring harmonies, reminiscent of bluegrass’ classic brother duos. Fiddler Clayton Campbell, mandolinist Rick Hayes, and bassist Mike Barber round out the brothers’ sound with solid backup punctuated by the occasional sizzling solo. If it isn’t enough that these guys are amazingly talented, they’re also dynamic live performers and the nicest guys in the music business. Anyone who doesn’t have this album cannot truly call themselves a bluegrass fan.
Must listen: “Lonely Me, Lonely You”, a beautiful ballad that could be a lost Everly Brothers single.
The Grascals burst onto the scene in 2004 with their barnstorming cover of “Viva Las Vegas” and their subsequent stint as Dolly Parton’s backing band on her Hello, I’m Dolly tour. Four years and numerous personnel changes later, they’ve come into their own, alternating standards like “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” with classic George Jones and Waylon Jennings songs performed bluegrass style. The Grascals’ originals have also improved in quality since their last album, 2006’s Long List of Heartaches. Guest stars like Vince Gill round out this fantastic album that’s sure to clean up when awards season rolls around.
Must listen: “Keep on Walkin.” It’s the title track for a reason.
Cherryholmes III: Don’t Believe
(Skaggs Family; US: 30 Sep 2008; UK: Available as import)
This family band is anchored by bass playing patriarch, Jere, and his mandolin-pickin’ wife, Sandy, but the real talent lies with their four children, none of whom are old enough to rent a car. Cia, 24, is a banjo prodigy, as well as an increasingly astute songwriter, penning the lyrics to several of the songs on Don’t Believe. Younger brothers Skip and BJ also try their hands at singing lead and writing on a couple tracks, and while they don’t quite measure up to big sis vocally, the Cherryholmes boys get better with each release.
Must listen: “This Is My Son”, a Cia Cherryholmes song in which she astutely compares the sacrifice of a mother whose son is going to an unnamed war with the sacrifice God made of His son. The lack of jingoistic chest thumping is what makes this song far better than some of the saber-rattlers that are getting undeserved airplay. Wonderful stuff from a songwriter who is rapidly becoming one of the best in bluegrass music; even those who aren’t gospel fans should give this one a try.
Dailey and Vincent
(Rounder; US: 29 Jan 2008; UK: Available as import)
Turns out that the 2008 Best of Bluegrass list is a family affair for the Vincents. Darrin Vincent just edges out his sister with Dailey and Vincent, his first full length album with Jamie Dailey, formerly of Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. Although the two men aren’t related, their harmonies are reminiscent of some of bluegrass’ best brother duos. The record is steeped in tradition; the duo covers the old Statler Brothers tune “More Than a Name on a Wall”, while workin’ songs “Poor Boy Workin’ Blues” and “Sweet Carrie” sound straight of a Flatt & Scruggs greatest hits collection thanks to high lonesome singing and blistering banjo. Dailey and Vincent might not cover any new ground in bluegrass, but they follow the traditional route extremely well.
Must Listen: “By the Mark”, Dailey and Vincent’s cover of the modern classic hymn, done with tenor harmony instead of Gillian Welch’s lovely but mournful alto.
(Rounder; US: 15 Jan 2008; UK: Available as import)
Bluegrass vocals are normally crystal clear, the high lonesome tenor sound that’s been so associated with the genre since its inception. The Steeldrivers’ lead singer Chris Stapleton’s (also a well-respected Nashville songwriter, penning number ones for Josh Turner and Kenny Chesney) voice seems more suited for Springsteen than Stanley, but the whiskey-soaked rasp suits the band’s rough sound and makes them stand out from the pack. Veteran fiddler Tammy Rogers also adds backing vocals that serve as a sweet counterpart to Stapleton’s growls. This is bluegrass for people who don’t like bluegrass, and the band’s raw passion seems to have garnered them a fair amount of traditional bluegrass fans as well.
Must listen: “If It Hadn’t Been for Love” may not be a traditional bluegrass murder ballad, but it’s a damn good song anyway.
Most famous as the mandolin/guitar player for Alison Krauss and Union Station as well as being the voice of George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Dan Tyminski fronts his own band here and shows why he’s one of the most talented all-around artists in bluegrass today. Technically this is a revival of an older version of the Dan Tyminski Band (who recorded Carry Me Across the Mountain in 2000), but the new lineup makes for a far better bluegrass band that includes expert pickers Barry Bales, Ron Stewart, Justin Moses, and Adam Steffey. Although Wheels seems it was recorded just to kill time while Union Station is on hiatus, one can only hope that the band sticks around.
Must Listen: “Heads You Win, Tails I Lose”
The North Carolina-based quartet continues their journey away from traditional bluegrass to a more progressive sound on their fourth album, incorporating country, blues, and rock into their string band sound. Frontman Dave Wilson is expanding his songwriting range; on IV, topics range from typical bluegrass fare to racial violence of the Civil Rights era (“Birmingham Jail”, a heartrending and passionate protest song that earns a place next to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”). After the so-so Speed of the Whippoorwill, Chatham County Line is back with producer Chris Stamey, whose deft touch makes the band shine on their all-around strongest release to date.
Must listen: “The Carolinian”, an infectious song about those two old standards: trains and what might have beens. The boys of Chatham County Line may be experimenting with other musical genres, but “The Carolinian” proves that bluegrass is what they do best.
Missouri girl Rhonda Vincent and her backing band, the Rage, have released one of their stronger albums with Good Thing Going. She may be an unknown in the non-bluegrass music world, but consider this Vincent’s coming-out record…and it doesn’t hurt that she’s gathered a group of high quality pickers to be her backing band while throwing in an A-list name to help with sales (megastar Keith Urban and his Meg Ryan haircut lend some vocals to the classic tune “The Water Is Wide”). Although there are a few songs drowning in syrup (“I Give All My Love to You”, a song Vincent wrote specifically for a friend’s wedding, may in fact require an insulin shot after listening), overall this is a solid album from one of the best ensembles in bluegrass. However, with two members leaving the band—banjo player/living legend Kenny Ingram and guitarist Darrell Webb—one wonders if Vincent will produce albums of this caliber in the future.
Must listen: “I’m Leaving.” The album’s leadoff song creates the perfect atmosphere for the rest of the record, in addition to showcasing Vincent’s vocal abilities.
The Infamous Stringdusters
(Sugar Hill; US: 10 Jun 2008; UK: 9 Jun 2008)
Despite their youthful age, the Infamous Stringdusters are extremely talented musicians. The band straddles the fine line between tradition and innovation to create a sound that, judging from their increasingly large fanbase as well as their recent critical acclaim and IBMA awards, suggests that Stringdusters are the new face of 21st century bluegrass. Infamous Stringdusters, the band’s second album, features band members Andy Hall, Travis Book, and Jeremy Garrett trading lead vocals, while Chris Pandolfi livens up the arrangements with sprightly banjo and the instrumental “Glass Elevator”. There isn’t a bad song on this record; once the band’s songwriting matures a little more, the Infamous Stringdusters will be a force to be reckoned with in bluegrass.
Must listen: “The Way I See You Now”
Mandolin virtuoso and ex-Nickel Creeker Chris Thile forms his own string band in which bluegrass, jazz, and classical theory are melded together in one amazing package, even if the lyrical content doesn’t quite measure up to the picking. We’re now ending Year Three of Thile rehashing his failed marriage—also a major subject on the final Nickel Creek album Why Should the Fire Die?—which he does here with the four movement entity “The Blind Leaving the Blind”. Top-notch instrumentation from the other Brothers (banjoist Noam Pikelny, bassist Greg Garrison, guitarist Chris Eldridge, and fiddler Gabe Witcher) make for some pretty amazing progressive bluegrass just on the verge of pretentiousness. Let’s just hope Thile finds some new subject matter before the next record.
Must listen: “Punch Bowl”