[25 December 2013]
As with any of the genres on our year-end lists, the digital revolution has created a vast middle class of albums worth listening to, and bluegrass is no exception. And while bluegrass sales have been generally up over the last few years, helped by an indie-roots revival and a festival scene that has provided more exposure to acoustic-based musicians, jamgrass bands, and traditional-minded veterans, the 2013 bluegrass scene got a commercial boost from the success of two famous men who first gained prominence outside the genre. Steve Martin continued his run as a serious banjo recording artist with Love Has Come for You, a set of folk duets with Edie Brickell that topped Billboard’s bluegrass charts for several weeks. The other record was Alan Jackson‘s The Bluegrass Album, the country star’s wholehearted dive into the genre.
Those two albums outsold all other bluegrass recordings this year and would at first glance indicate some novelty spike within the genre; yet it may more accurately represent a general turn toward traditionalism, a pull backward by these and other artists from the more rock-leaning progressiveness making noise on the other end of the bluegrass spectrum. Indeed, 2013 caught several newgrass heavyweights between albums as ancient tones came roaring back, as with former Clinch Mountain Boy James King‘s Three Chords and the Truth, another solid round of bluegrass storytelling from a powerful veteran. Even Noam Pikelny, the banjo savant from progressive leading lights the Punch Brothers, went old school with his instrumental tribute record, Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe.
2014 is already shaping up to be an exciting one for progressive artists, though, led by a Nickel Creek reunion album and tour, and we look forward to the return of the Planet Bluegrass Ranch—ground zero for American bluegrass festivals—which was hit hard by the Lyons, Colorado flooding this fall. Thankfully, Planet Bluegrass expects a full recovery and is already announcing acts for the 2014 festivals. But for now we look back on a year that welcomed the rise of talented upstarts, the return to form of masters, and collaborations among the best in the business. Here are the Top Ten of 2013:
Alan Jackson was at the tip of the spear of the New Traditionalist movement back in the ‘80s. Now, nearly 25 years into a Hall-of-Fame-worthy career, new traditionalism is the new classic country, at distinct odds with today’s pop-leaning country radio. So instead of trying to fit into today’s hit-country trends, Jackson dials it even further back to country’s roots by making a full-blown bluegrass record. The focus groups would’ve had Jackson making a slick album of broad commercial appeal with token bluegrass instrumentation and guests galore, similar to Dierks Bentley‘s 2010 album Up on the Ridge. The heartening revelation here is that The Bluegrass Album is no fake; it’s bluegrass through and through, featuring eight strong Jackson originals and a handful of crafty covers, all backed by ace pickers like Adam Steffey (mandolin), Tim Crouch (fiddle), and Rob Ickes (dobro). These masters support the songs with killer playing without overpowering Jackson’s voice—check out the neck-taxing original “Appalachian Mountain Girl” and the waltz-ternative cover of the John Anderson hit “Wild and Blue”.
Mandolin maven Adam Steffey has a strong claim for 2013’s bluegrass MVP. He’s all over Alan Jackson’s bluegrass record, he released New Primitive (his own solo interpretations of instrumental standards), and he leads the Boxcars, whose third album, It’s Just a Road finds expert bluegrass artists joining forces as one of the genre’s strongest collectives. Some of the songs here you know (the Steffey-sung “Trouble in Mind”), some are new originals from guitarist Keith Garrett (the hard-country-leaning “Caryville”) and from fiddler Ron Stewart (the instrumental ringer “Skillet Head Derailed”). True to bluegrass traditions, the Boxcars don’t shy from the dark side of life, either by way of mining deep Carter Family and Hank Williams cuts, or in their own songs about adultery and meth towns, the devil’s tales played with angelic grace.
8Steep Canyon Rangers
Steep Canyon Rangers might be the hardest-working band in bluegrass, having aligned with Steve Martin on a series of albums and tours while still carving out their own distinctive niche as one of bluegrass’s sturdiest ensembles. The IBMA-decorated North Carolina five-piece spent much of the year backing Martin’s tour with Edie Brickell, but also managed to follow last year’s Nobody Knows You with another sterling set. As usual, the record confirms the Rangers as musicians of the first order, specializing in instrumental dexterity, tight vocal harmonizing, and superb original material. The players—including mandolinist Mike Guggino and fiddle-scratcher Nicky Sanders—can solo their brains out, but most often concede flash to the collective and to the songs. And these guys have the songs: the band’s composers—especially banjo whiz Graham Sharp—continue to blend styles (bluegrass, country, gospel, folk, blues) on zingers like “Lay Myself Down” and the album’s excellent title cut.
The Steeldrivers were seemingly dealt a fatal blow a couple of years back when the band’s primary songwriters (chainsaw-voiced singer Chris Stapleton and mandolinist Mike Henderson) left the band. So the follow-up to 2010’s excellent breakthrough Reckless felt much in doubt. Then the damnedest thing happened: The remaining members—including Tammy Rogers (fiddle), Richard Bailey (banjo), and Mike Fleming (bass)—forged on, replacing Stapleton with singer Gary Nichols, and made another killer album. Sure, Nichols is a bit of a Stapleton soundalike, and some of the best tunes here are Stapleton and Henderson holdovers, like the whiskey-down-your-pants two-step of “Wearin’ a Hole” and the melodic punch of “When I’m Gone”. But the band sounds uniformly terrific here, and Rogers’ breakneck “Hell on Wheels” and Nichols’ grizzled “Burnin’ the Woodshed Down” prove that this band is very much alive and well and still providing a welcome hard-country edge to the contemporary bluegrass scene. Hammer down? That’s a big 10-4.
6Dailey & Vincent
For the last few years, Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent have been selling their CDs (a Statler Brothers tribute, a gospel collection) at Cracker Barrel restaurants, a move that made good sense for a clientele whose meat and potatoes are these fellers’ Ryman-era harmonies and dedication to well-mannered traditional bluegrass. But can these boys bring it? Check out “Steel Drivin’ Man”, the wig-flipping lead cut from the new Brothers of the Highway. Or how about the fiddle (B.J. Cherryholmes) and banjo (Jessie Baker) locking horns on “Back to Jackson County”. Or the cornpone fun of the standard-instrumental mash-up of “Howdy Neighbor Howdy”. Or the gospel quartet perfection of “Won’t It Be Wonderful There”. And, as always, this is one impressively sung affair with harmonies that most groups would kill for. It’s true that Dailey & Vincent offer nothing that Branson audiences would object to, but for airtight bluegrass picking, singing, and performing, they prove again that they are damn hard to beat.
On her first album since 2009’s acclaimed Whatcha Gonna Do, and first record on the Compass label, Claire Lynch and her first-rate band turn in another winner. Lynch shares aural space with Alison Krauss, of course, but Lynch’s hummingbird voice has a quality unique to her that makes her one of contemporary bluegrass’s most emotive singers. At times, she’s closer to Dolly Parton here on honky-tonky tunes (“I’ll Be Alright Tomorrow”, “Everybody Knows I’ve Been Crying”), although the ethereal ballads such as “Need Somewhere” put Lynch in rarefied air, justifying her win for this year’s IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year. As usual, Lynch finds a relaxing blend of folk, bluegrass, and country—and her band is comfortable with both fresh improvisational forays and with elegant, pacific backdrops to these songs, half of which were co-written by Lynch. And three cheers for “Buttermilk Road”, the best song of the year to hambone to. Eef, ife!
4Del McCoury Band
The king of the traditional bluegrass scene had one hell of a year. Del toured as part of the Masters of Bluegrass package alongside fellow legends Bobby Osborne and J.D. Crowe, teamed up with Sam Bush on a leg of duet shows including a jubilant set at Bonnaroo, and carried on with his own Del McCoury Band to rule over the 6th annual Delfest in Maryland and the inaugural Del Yeah! festival in St. Louis. Capping it all was a new band album, Streets of Baltimore. Del and the boys, at this point, can tickle both the folding-chair-lodged seniors and mushroom-and-mountain crowds just by showing up. But forget about laurel resting. On this album, they’ve compiled another winning set of material, playing with the same mix of precision and ranginess that typifies their electrifying live performances. Del’s vocals remain a marvel, still hitting those dog-whistle-high hillbilly whines, taking on non-bluegrass standards like Ray Stevens’ “Misty” (sweet selection there) and the Platters’ classic “Only You” (with the band on fire) and turning them into Del Band gold.
Who’s your favorite Della Mae? Smoke-and-honey vocalist Celia Woodsmith? Nimble-picking mando maiden Jenni Lynn Gardner? Guitar-and-harmony ace Courtney Hartman? Two-time National Fiddle champ Kimber Ludiker? Hard-slapping bassist Shelby Means? Either way, these five Boston-strong babes fuse to create an enchanting do-si-do. They’ve been on a serious upward trajectory for a couple of years and have now hit paydirt with the Bryan Sutton-produced This World Oft Can Be. Part old-tyme fiddle-twisted quick-steppers (“Letter from Down the Road”), part genre-bending ballads, these gals have accumulated a Delluva set of tunes. Check out “Hounds” for some representative folkgrass charm or the sweet country-lovin’ of “Pine Tree” or the clawhammer clogger of the title track. Purists who bristle at experimentation need not apply, but This World sparkles with unique and refined bluegrass beauty.
The Gibson Brothers were at the top of this list back in 2008 and 2011. Once again, Eric and Leigh Gibson are bluegrass standard bearers with They Called It Music, the 11th album from the best brother duo in bluegrass. The smooth and rich harmonies, the impeccable picking, the mix of fine originals and terrific cover choices—these guys seem to never have a misstep. But what makes the new album especially satisfying is that the Gibsons take another jump forward as songwriters, adding a depth of feeling on an album recorded after the death of their father. The title track embraces nostalgia for music as an honest and simple labor of love, not of money, and Shawn Camp and Loretta Lynn‘s “I’m Dying for Someone to Live For” is the brothers at their loveliest. As tight as they come, these boys—Eric on banjo, Leigh on guitar, with fiddler Clayton Campbell, mandolinist Joe Walsh, and bassist Mike Barber—sound superb on Mark Knopfler‘s toe-tapping “Daddy’s Gone to Knoxville” and the Opry-style “Sundown and Sorrow”, a Pee Wee King oldie. At other times, the record soars on slower meditations on the elusiveness of love and the inevitability of loss, as on Eric’s “Songbird’s Song”, the capper to an album of nothing but highlights.
1Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen set out to prove that, if you like your bluegrass fast, tight, and catchy, they’ve got the chops to set your beard aflame. Solivan is a mando and fiddle monster, and his Dirty Kitchen features outstanding banjo shape-shifter Mike Munford, supple-elbowed bassist Danny Booth, and look out for Chris Luquette, a 22-year-old Martin-shredding guitarist who plays flattop breaks few can match. On the Edge splits the difference between in-the-pocket tradition and new-grassy progressiveness on a set of winning originals, and Solivan’s scrappy tenor vocals lend these songs both coziness and edge. Comparisons to the New Grass Revival prototype make sense here on songs like that combines danceable mandolin chop, complex banjo-and-fiddle countermelodies, and gale-force vocals, making for the tastiest bluegrass stew of the year. And when Solivan & co. let it rip, secure your loose belongings. One minute, they’re laying into tricky newgrass instrumental, the next they’re singing trad-minded rafter-raisers. Overall, no one cooked up a better recipe of picking, writing, and singing this year than the Kitchen. Eat up.