Music

The Best Bluegrass of 2011

Steve Leftridge
Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper

While last year was distinguished by a heavy dose of newgrass, jamgrass, and progressive bluegrass, 2011 was defined by a return to traditionalism.

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

 
Artist: Blue Highway

Album: Sounds of Home

Label: Rounder

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List number: 10

Blue Highway
Sounds of Home

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”.

 
Artist: Alison Krauss and Union Station

Album: Paper Airplane

Label: Rounder

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List number: 9

Alison Krauss and Union Station
Paper Airplane

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”.

 
Artist: The Farewell Drifters

Album: Echo Boom

Label: Heart Squeeze

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List number: 8

The Farewell Drifters
Echo Boom

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.

 
Artist: Sierra Hull

Album: Daybreak

Label: Rounder

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List number: 7

Sierra Hull
Daybreak

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.

 
Artist: Larry Sparks

Album: Almost Home

Label: Rounder

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List number: 6

Larry Sparks
Almost Home

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.

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