[6 December 2011]
Last year, our list included its share of young newgrass whippersnappers, like the Punch Brothers and the Infamous Stringdusters, who continued to push bluegrass music into challenging, and perhaps polarizing, new directions. The Punchers, though they didn’t release new material in 2011, were road warriors, supporting 2010’s Antifogmatic,while writing and recording an album due in early 2012. Still, frontman/mandolinist Chris Thile made this year’s list anyway, having an insanely fruitful year—see the write-up below for his duets record with Michael Daves, while his work with the Goat Rodeo Sessions alongside Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, and Edgar Meyer was one of the year’s most exciting collaborations, though that record’s genre shape-shifting flung it too far from this list’s bluegrass category, even as expansive as our list has become.
2010 was heavier than usual with notable newgrass, jamgrass, and progressive bluegrass releases, and many of those artists (the SteelDrivers, the Stringdusters, Trampled by Turtles, Cadillac Sky, etc.) took 2011 off, at least as far as new studio releases. Newgrass founding fathers like Sam Bush and Tim O’Brien were likewise between albums. Other legends were active, if not necessarily within bluegrass’s borders: Béla Fleck reunited the original Flecktones, bringing back harmonica player Howard Levy, for the awe-inspiring new Rocket Science, and the Del McCoury Band teamed up with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in winning fashion for a saints-go-marching-to-Kentucky alliance on American Legacies and a delightful series of shows together.
Progressive bluegrass certainly wasn’t absent from the landscape in 2011, as our list this year attests, but the year seemed to be best defined by a return to traditionalism, as several bluegrass veterans (Doyle Lawson, Russell Moore, Terry Baucom) returned to the scene with decidedly well-built albums. Speaking of Baucom, it was quite a year for banjos overall—besides Fleck’s album and tour, Noam Pikelny released the star-studded Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail, and even five-string ambassador Steve Martin released his most earnest and satisfying set of country and bluegrass songs to date. Then again, a number of young artists made our list this year, pickers who demonstrate a precocious astuteness for both classic forms and progressive styles, an indication above all of what we can expect in bluegrass years to come. And now the top ten of the year. Steve Leftridge
Blue Highway’s first album since celebrating their 15th anniversary as one of contemporary bluegrass’s most consistently fine (and IBMA-decorated) bands, Sounds of Home keeps the veteran group’s winning streak alive. It’s a matter of course that any Blue Highway record will be packed with stirring vocals (Shawn Lane’s lonesome tenor has never been stronger) and pristine picking, but the new record also finds the band still growing as writers; as steeped in bluegrass traditions as the new record is, the album is comprised of 11 fresh originals, pensive narratives filled with heartaching nostalgia and poor-boy existentialism. Highlights: Rob Ickes dripping dobro gold over the harmony-rich chorus on the title cut, and the banjo, dobro, and mandolin showdown on the fierce instrumental “Roaring Creek”.
9Alison Krauss and Union Station
The gauzy austerity of the photo on the cover of Paper Airplane gave fair notice that Krauss’ resumption with Union Station would be a refined affair. Thankfully, that somberness doesn’t make for a stuffy set of songs, as had been the case on the last couple of AKUS records. Certainly, Paper Airplane’s songs are uniformly melancholy, but what feels monochromatically lugubrious upon first listen grows into elegant sumptuousness with a few spins. Krauss’ tantalizing voice and Union Station’s musical sensibilities have always been a heaven-made blend, and the group’s production choices here reach a perfect mix of embellishment and restraint on a terrific set of new and old found material, particularly a soothing reading of Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” and a gorgeous arrangement of Jackson Browne’s “My Opening Farewell”.
8The Farewell Drifters
To be sure, many bluegrass fans don’t know what to do with the Farewell Drifters, and their inclusion on any best-of-bluegrass list will raise purists’ eyebrows. Like Punch Brothers or Chatham County Line, the Drifters play traditional bluegrass instruments, but resist the trammels of the genre that might bind them to any given form. Echo Boom is a record that pushes the Nashville-via-Kentucky band further into pop experimentalism, this time frolicking across a nifty program that marries newgrass mando-and-fiddle revelry with early Beatles melodies and Pet Sounds harmonies. It makes for an appealing combo, and Zach Bevill’s earnest vocals on winners like “Heart of a Slave” and “We Go Together” provide an undeniable charm and enthusiasm that make Echo Boom an enduring blast indeed.
Wunderkind mandolin whiz Sierra Hull, with her delicate vocal delivery, won’t soon escape those Alison Krauss comparisons, but the delightful new Daybreak should obliterate any doubt that Hull is a singular artist of enormous talent. Released when she was just 19 (and while on a full scholarship to Berklee), the album provides a platform for Hull’s gift for mellifluous ballads, like “Easy Come, Easy Go” and the title cut, both of which are decidedly Krauss-y—the album was produced by Union Station bassist Barry Bales. But elsewhere, she tears into newgrass and jamgrass in a way that places her in a larger, and more adventurous, set of traditions. How good is she? Take a listen to Hull’s mandolin sizzler “Bombshell”. Settle in for a long ride with this kid.
After over 45 years in the business, Larry Sparks continues to demonstrate the consummate singing, guitar playing, and blues-bent interpretations that have confirmed his legend. Backed by the superb fiddling of Ron Stewart and the steadfast Lonesome Ramblers’ Carl Berggren on mandolin and Tyler Mullins on banjo, Almost Home never lets up across a teflon set of airtight traditionalism, covering a range of styles—high-lonesome moaners, fleet-fretted road songs, Mexican gunslinging ballads, and nimble instrumentals. But it’s the performance of the former Clinch Mountain Boy himself that stands out, as Sparks remains at the peak of his powers as one of bluegrass’s sturdiest vocalists and flattop pickers.
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
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.
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
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.