Music

The Best Bluegrass of 2009

Steve Leftridge and Juli Thanki

For bluegrass fans, 2009 was a great year for music, a bad year for frugality. Though we're only listing the Top Ten, there were many excellent artists and albums worthy of a mention.

For bluegrass fans, 2009 was a great year for music, a bad year for frugality. Though we're only listing the Top Ten, there are many excellent artists and albums worthy of an honorable mention, including Donna Ulisse's Walk This Mountain Down, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver's Lonely Street, Don't Turn Your Back by Dale Ann Bradley, and Alicia Nugent's Hillbilly Goddess just barely missing the Top Ten. Don't forget solid releases from the Del McCoury Band, the Emmit Nershi Band, Rhonda Vincent, and Dry Branch Fire Squad. And with several teen and 20-somethings releasing exciting and innovative music (Jeremy Garrett, Chris Pandolfi, and Sarah Jarosz, among others), it seems safe to say that the future of bluegrass is in good hands.

 

Artist: Dailey and Vincent

Album: Brothers from Different Mothers

Label: Rounder

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US Release Date: 2009-03-31

UK Release Date: 2009-05-04

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List number: 10

It's hard to think of a more befitting title for Dailey and Vincent's sophomore album; when the two sing together, it's reminiscent of bluegrass' best brother duos like the Monroes, Louvins, or Stanleys. Last year's self-titled album took the bluegrass world by storm, and Brothers finds Jamie and Darrin picking up right where they left off. As with their first record, the influence of the Statler Brothers is readily apparent as the duo covers "Years Ago", and after the wild success of gospel song "By the Mark", Dailey and Vincent can't be blamed for recording another Gillian Welch-penned number, "Winter's Come and Gone". However, if any song on Brothers is the successor to "By the Mark", it's closing track "On the Other Side", which finds the guys wondering about the afterlife: "On the other side / Do you ever see me cry? / Do you know how much I miss you / Wish I could have said goodbye." Juli Thanki

 

Artist: Steep Canyon Rangers

Album: Deep in the Shade

Label: Rebel

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US Release Date: 2009-10-06

UK Release Date: 2009-10-06

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List number: 9

This North Carolina quintet may be a fairly young band, but their star is rapidly on the rise. Produced by Ronnie Bowman, Deep in the Shade is the Rangers' fourth album, and also their strongest one to date thanks to well-written songs and sharp picking. Guitarist/frontman Woody Platt's smooth, radio-friendly vocals are a pleasure to hear, especially on standout track "Turn Up the Bottle", while fiddler Nicky Sanders showcases his considerable skill on the instrumental track "Mourning Dove". A cover of Merle Haggard's "I Must Be Somebody Else You've Known" rounds out a damn fine album. Having recently finished a tour (complete with Letterman appearance) backing their most famous fan, Steve Martin, the Steep Canyon Rangers have come a long way since 2006, when they received the IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year Award. Juli Thanki

 

Artist: Steve Martin

Album: The Crow

Label: Decca

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US Release Date: 2009-05-19

UK Release Date: 2009-07-27

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List number: 8

The Crow was an album several decades in the making, since Steve Martin has been kinda busy these past 30 years. It was certainly worth the wait. Martin alternates between clawhammer and Scruggs-style picking, delivering captivating instrumentals and clever lyrics. Martin only sings on one track, "Late for School", a fantastic tale reminiscent of Shel Silverstein's children's poetry. However, he does enlist the help of a few top-notch singers, including Dolly Parton and Vince Gill on the sweetly romantic "Pretty Flowers". It's not traditional bluegrass, but it's not an album to overlook. Juli Thanki

 

Artist: Patty Loveless

Album: Mountain Soul II

Label: Saguaro Road

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US Release Date: 2009-09-29

UK Release Date: 2009-09-28

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List number: 7

Loveless had trepidations about the high expectations inherent in calling her new album a sequel to Mountain Soul, the 2001 string-band about-face that pulled her away from mainstream country and earned her an explosion of critical acclaim and new roots-music fans. She needn't have worried -- Mountain Soul II is every bit as satisfying as its predecessor. It's a generous set that features ace standards (the traditional “Working on a Building” and a reworking of Harlan Howard's “Busted”, among others), but also showcases Loveless's newfound songwriting voice on songs like “Big Chance”, which easily stacks up with those classics. And, as always, Loveless demonstrates why she is one of the genre's most stirring and instinctive singers, on both the record's sweeping country ballads and barn-burning bluegrass rippers. Steve Leftridge

 

Artist: Bryan Sutton and Friends

Album: Almost Live

Label: Sugar Hill

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US Release Date: 2009-07-14

UK Release Date: 2009-08-17

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List number: 6

Sutton is the current guitar champ in the bluegrass pantheon of super-pickers, and his dazzling new album is loaded with astonishing displays of virtuosity, including “Big Island Hornpipe”, with Sutton trading foxy runs with mandolin savant Chris Thile and banjo powerhouse Noam Pikelny, and the Bela Fleck duet “Five Straw Suite”, a tangle of complex time signatures, impossible chord progressions, and spidery arpeggios. This kind of abstruse plonking might give casual bluegrass fans and purists pause, but the album takes a traditional shift to Hot Rize (“Church Street Blues”), swing (“Le Pont De La Moustache” -- check out Sutton's solo on this one: Lord have mercy), a guitar duo (the gentle “Dark Island” with Russ Barenberg), and an old-tyme clogger (“Wonder Valley Girls”, with Stuart Duncan and Tim O'Brien). For those interested in a consummate document of today's preeminent acoustic instrumentalists, among whom Sutton's place is secure, Almost Live is an indispensable set. Steve Leftridge

 

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