[14 December 2010]
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.
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.
8Lonesome 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.
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.
6Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band
When you’ve been in bands with both Bill Monroe and Jerry Garcia, you end up as a bluegrass diplomat to all, appealing equally to grandmothers watching with their purses on their laps and to chicken-jigging hackeysack enthusiasts. But Uncle Pete has also, over the last decade, recorded some superior records, none better than Legacy, an album of 12 new original compositions. Backed by Rowan’s touring band of bluegrass vets, along with a couple of kindred cameos (Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs), Legacy is a delightful dose of ancient tones from a consummate P-Ro. But as gloriously tradition-steeped as the record is, the renegade in Rowan is never far below the surface, either lyrically (the intolerance-lampooning “Jailer Jailer”) or musically (the transcendentalist Dead-style drift of “Don’t Ask Me Why”).
5Chatham County Line
The hardest choice this year was whether Chatham County Line belonged on a bluegrass list at all, or whether the North Carolina quartet had finally tipped the balance from bluegrass to alt-country enough to jump to the Americana list. However you classify Wildwood, an album this accomplished and satisfying has earned its place among the year’s best. There is some fairly straight-up bluegrass here, like the hot-stepping “Heart Attack”, and these boys long ago proved that they pick and harmonize with the best of them. For Wildwood, the band turned to ambrosial acoustic-guitar neo-traditional folk songs, featuring the idyllic texture of John Teer’s fiddle and mandolin and Chandler Holt’s banjo. In the end, though, Wildwood soars on singer/guitarist Dave Wilson’s shoulders—his gentle songs and twilight vocal delivery will keep you warm this winter.
You like tight, fast bluegrass? The Grascals’ cover of the Osborne Brothers’ “Son of a Sawmill Man” from The Famous Lefty Flynn’s will flip your wig. But that’s just scratching the surface on a record of peaks of all kinds. Lead singer Jamie Johnson’s hillbilly whine keeps things good and country on express-train zingers like “Everytime” and choice covers like Steve Earle’s “My Old Friend the Blues”. And the rich keep getting richer: for this record, the Grascals added banjo superpicker Kristin Scott Benson, whose white-knuckle heroics on tunes like “Blue Rock Slide” add invigorating dynamism to the Grascals’ already-formidable lineup. It all adds up to another terrific recording from one of bluegrass’s most consistently fine acts.
3Dailey & Vincent
In 2010, the only way to buy Dailey & Vincent Sing the Statler Brothers was while waiting for your chicken-fried steak at Cracker Barrel restaurants. The real gravy in that deal is the duo’s spot-on tribute to the Statlers’ four-part harmonies and lovable songs. It’s an album that provides more than just sweet nostalgia; it offers further proof that no act out there can match the integrity of Jamie and Darrin’s fastidious commitment to classic-bluegrass playing and singing. Hot licks? No problem. But the real focus here is on drum-tight vocal harmonies and pristine, tasteful arrangements on a dozen Statler classics. And what songs! All of your faves are here: “Elizabeth”, “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You”, “Class of ‘57”, all in perfect apple-pie order. Oh, waitress?
The SteelDrivers’ sophomore release Reckless is so good that it can’t help but feel like both a treasure and a crying shame for bluegrass fans. After all, Chris Stapleton left the band after recording Reckless, and although they’ve replaced him with a capable singer, nobody can replicate Stapleton’s soulful chainsaw of a voice, which has unmistakably been the Drivers’ calling card. Check out “Where Rainbows Never Die”—Stapleton is Willie Nelson on the verses and Otis Redding on the chorus. Moreover, as well as fiddlin’ lass Tammy Rogers and banjoist Richard Bailey play, it’s Stapleton’s songs, the strongest set of original bluegrass tunes this year, that have made the SteelDrivers special. There isn’t a minute of filler on Reckless, but the grease-grass stank of “Good Corn Liquor” will get you where you need to be, as will Stapleton’s timber-rattling vocals on “The Price” or the perfectly-crafted slave narrative “Can You Run”.
1The Infamous Stringdusters
With Things That Fly, their third album, the Infamous Stringdusters bound ahead of the pack with the meticulous craft of both their instrumental and vocal performances. Things That Fly finds the band tightening as musicians, writers, and record-makers on this unremittingly superb offering. The stirring chugger “Taking a Chance on the Truth”, the astounding instrumental “The Deputy”, the hillbilly toe-tapper “17 Cents”, the delicate neo-grass ballad “All the Same”, the hotshit ripper “Those Who’ve Gone On”, the cleverly arranged U2 cover “In God’s Country”—all part of a continuous display of highlights. The band boasts three first-rate lead singers, giving them wide flexibility and input, but if it’s picking you want, there are more wicked, expressive solos blazing every which way across Things That Fly than on any other record this year. Much of the group’s scopic sound comes from the fact that, at six members, they’ve made room for both full-time dobro (Andy Hall) and fiddle (Jeremy Garrett), on top of banjo (Chris Pandofi), mandolin (Jesse Cobb), guitar (Andy Falco), and bass (Travis Book), each of them staggeringly skillful musicians. It all adds up to a dynamic, deeply musical new set of songs, and all hail the vibrant production of Gary Paczosa. It should be the album that seals the deal on the ‘Dusters as the new standard who have raised the bar for everyone else.