The Best Bluegrass of 2014

This year's rich pickin's of traditional bluegrass, jamgrass, and newgrass make it the best year for recorded bluegrass music in quite some time.

Another year, another terrific year for bluegrass. We say this every year, admittedly, but it’s never been more true than in 2014. As new music lovers continue to get turned on to the vintage tones of acoustic picking, bluegrass bands old and new are reaching larger audiences, and the summer festival scene is brimming with bluegrass acts and fans who are ready to pogo along to their shows.

Veterans like Del McCoury, J.D. Crowe, and Doyle Lawson continued to tour in 2014 behind some of the most vital recordings of their careers. Other traditionally-minded bluegrass bands recorded solid new material: Rhonda Vincent’s Only Me, Blue Highway’s The Game (celebrating their 20th year as a band), The Lonesome River Band’s Turn on a Dime, and Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper’s On Down the Line are a few fine examples.

The great wave of newgrass legends from the Big Bang of Newgrass in the ‘70s kept on keeping on, representing the golden age of bluegrass where classicism meets trailblazing instrumental genius. John Cowan, in reference to the age he and his cohorts are turning, released Sixty, a star-packed album (which made PopMatters’ Best Americana list for 2014) that finds him still in mountain-high form. Jerry Douglas, Béla Fleck, and Tim O’Brien continued to collaborate, tour, and record at relentless paces and with fresh creative energy. Sam Bush played the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado for the 40th straight year, as the Festival’s organizers Planet Bluegrass pulled off a herculean feat by returning stronger than ever from last year’s historic flooding in Lyons, CO.

This year also breakups and reunions within two of the bands most responsible for multiplying bluegrass audiences in the ‘90s. Yonder Mountain String Band announced the departure of longtime mandolinist and singer Jeff Austin, vowing nonetheless to forge ahead without him. At the same time, the platinum-selling Nickel Creek reformed for a highly successful reunion album and tour, all the while Nickel Creek frontman Chris Thile readied a new Punch Brothers album, The Phosphorescent Blues, due out in early 2015. Also, a revitalized Leftover Salmon dropped a new record, the appropriately titled High Country, at year’s end and officially added Little Feat pianist Bill Payne to the permanent lineup.

Finally, a young breed of progressive bluegrassers and shaggy jamgrass bands laid claim to the next generation of hippies and hipsters. Some of these bands, like Trampled by Turtles and Greensky Bluegrass, with new albums of original material in 2014, graduated to the main stage at megafestivals, as modern bluegrass continued to evolve, getting more experimental and more popular than ever before.

All of it adds up to make 2014 the best year for recorded bluegrass music in quite some time. Here then are the Top Ten bluegrass albums of the year among a very crowded field.


Artist: Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen

Album: Cold Spell

Label: Compass

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Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen
Cold Spell

Frank Solivan and the sterling musicians in the Dirty Kitchen (banjo trickster Mike Munford, extrasensory bassist Danny Booth, and dextrous-digited guitarist Chris Luquette) have been giving the entire bluegrass community the vapors. This happened first with 2010’s red-hot self-titled record, and was then followed with last year’s On the Edge, an expertly-played set of ringers that landed at number one on this very list last year. These albums launched the band to the top of the contemporary scene by combining in-the-pocket instrumental precision, commanding vocals, and soulful songwriting. In 2014, the band went even further, graduating to the Telluride Bluegrass main stage, getting nominated for a Grammy, and releasing another new set of original material with Cold Spell. Guest dobroist Rob Ickes of Blue Highway expands the band’s sound on a few tunes here. The Kitchen cooks up a fresh round of intricate, multipart instrumentals (“Yeah Man”, “Chief Taghkanic”) and refined Chris Thile-esque ballads (“Better (Days Go By)”, “Missing You”). Frank and Co. also exercise their burgeoning clout by calling up appearances from Sam Bush and John Cowan, a duo whose presence makes sense, as Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen have sealed their place as worthy inheritors of the New Grass Revival legacy.


Artist: Hot Rize

Album: When I’m Free

Label: Ten In Hand

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Hot Rize
When I’m Free

In the late ‘70s, Hot Rize — the group comprising Tim O’Brien (mandolin/fiddle), Charles Sawtelle (guitar), Pete Wernick (banjo), Nick Forster (bass) — was Colorado’s most popular band. The gorup galvanized the bluegrass community, turning a new generation of music lovers on to what was happening every summer in Telluride, and helping to define a new bluegrass language. This language is both deeply reverent to classic forms (including their honky-tonk alter-egos Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers) yet simultaneously progressive and expansive, incorporating elements of rock and jazz into an ever-evolving repertoire. After ascending to the top of the bluegrass world, like so much self-rising flour, Hot Rize disbanded in 1992 but has reformed occasionally, remaining a popular concert draw and adding the astonishing Bryan Sutton on guitar after the death of Sawtelle in 1999. However, the quartet hasn’t produced any new material since 1992. This 22-year album drought ends with When I’m Free, an album that achieves a seamless continuity with their legacy. Keeping it lean and clean, the quartet displays their intuitive interplay, and mandolinist/fiddler O’Brien offers his trademark relaxed vocals on lovely fare like “You Were On My Mind This Morning” and “A Cowboy’s Life”. Forster steps up for the rockabilly-influenced “Doggone”, and Wernick, Dr. Banjo himself, is turned loose on “Sky Rider”, an instrumental showdown with Sutton. When I’m Free was worth the wait, and when the fellas blend voices on “Glory in the Meeting House”, it feels like they never left.


Artist: Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn

Album: Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn

Label: Rounder

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Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn
Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn

For over three decades, Béla Fleck has multiplied the possibilities of the banjo, continually updating the modern history of the instrument, ingeniously and gracefully integrating those five strings into any genre: bluegrass, rock, jazz, world, and classical, to name a few. Abigail Washburn has restructured her own banjo and lent her windborne vocals to fit a world-hopping span of folk styles. Here, the married couple join musical forces for their first duet album: no other musicians, just dueling banjos and Abigail’s ethereal voice. With these strings they do wed a set of antique mountain tunes, goth-noir murder ballads, and lullabies. (The Banjo Prince can even be heard cooing at one point.) It’s a dusky, delicate collection, although Fleck fans who want banjo fireworks won’t be disappointed either: A reworked “New South Africa”, a live Flecktones favorite, gets the clawhammer treatment and floats aromatically across a century of banjo traditions. Some of the loveliest music you’ll hear all year, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn is the sumptuous sounds of souls and musical spirits entwining.


Artist: Bryan Sutton

Album: Into My Own

Label: Sugar Hill

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Bryan Sutton
Into My Own

“I wanted to make an album that only I could make”, said Bryan Sutton upon the release of Into My Own, the flattop master’s fourth solo record. Well, there’s little doubt that only Sutton is capable of such playing: For a decade now, Sutton has been the undisputed king of bluegrass guitar picking, the Head Honcho of the Hammer-On, the Prince of Pentatonics. For most of his career, Sutton has been the well-behaved wingman for Ricky Skaggs, Tim O’Brien, Hot Rize and countless others, but the appropriately titled Into My Own features Sutton front and center, showing off for 50 minutes, just as you’d hoped. Zippy workouts like “Cricket on the Hearth” are here, alongside reels, blues vamps, rags, Travis-picking, and fresh-written tributes to two of Sutton’s heroes, Norman Blake (“Ole Blake”) and Bill Frisell (“Frisell’s Rag”). Sutton is also a fine bluegrass singer, showcased on the trad-grassy “That’s Where I Belong”, live staple “Been All Around This World”, and “Run Away”, to which Bryan clawhammers along on a fretless banjo. And as backing musicians, a player of Sutton’s stature has the pick of the bluegrass litter, so the record in another chance to hear the peerless picking of Sam Bush, the Traveling McCourys, Stuart Duncan, and Noam Pikelny. If it’s bluegrass guitar that really greases your pistons, you can’t reasonably be expected to live without this album.


Artist: Greensky Bluegrass

Album: If Sorrows Swim

Label: Big Blue Zoo

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Greensky Bluegrass
If Sorrows Swim

A major favorite with the patchouli-‘tween-your-toes set, Greensky Bluegrass is a jam nation favorite whose live shows overflow with wildcat picking and singing, featuring a knack for merging several genres, sweaty-beard jam extensions, and unpredictable setlists. All of this comes courtesy of the bullet-train banjo of Michael Arelen Bont, the eye-of-the-tiger mandolin of Paul Hoffman, the trout-in-a-blender guitar of Dave Bruzza, the liquid-steel dobro of Anders Beck, and the jackrabbit bass of Mike Devol. This Kalamazoo quintet has worked hard to transcend the jamgrass scene by providing a balanced studio attack, first with 2011’s hook-filled Handguns, and now If Sorrows Swim, which showcases a maturing sound. Tracks like mandolinist Paul Hoffman’s driving rock-drama “Windshield” and guitarist Dave Bruzza’s vividly romantic “Wings for Wheels” push the band to new emotive heights. The breakneck rhythms of “Leap Year” combine creative invention with craftsmanlike listenability. The group does get into scrambled grooves, and much of the record produces a fixed clattery pulse that will give their improvisation-loving fans plenty to work with (check out the spacey digressions in “Kerosene”). But with If Sorrows Swim’s soulful melodies, pensive lyrics, and polished arrangements, Greensky Bluegrass has taken another step in attracting new admirers both within and outside bluegrass circles.

5 – 1

Artist: Chatham County Line

Album: Tightrope

Label: Yep Roc

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Chatham County Line

From 2003’s self-titled album through 2010’s much-admired Wildwood, Chatham County Line has brewed a uniquely warm brand of bluegrass, sweetened by tender soul, graceful arrangements, mountain-ridge stomp, soothing melodies, and lead singer Dave Wilson’s twilight vocals. The gorgeous new Tightrope continues the group’s streak. These four Carolinians — Dave Wilson (guitar), John Teer (mandolin, fiddle), Chandler Holt (banjo), Greg Readling (bass) — transform string-band do-si-do and rich harmonies into ambrosial country-folk. Once again, Chatham County Line employs a rural sensibility drawn from Appalachian resonance and Opry reverence, but with the loose instrumental tangle of ‘60s folk and Wilson’s literate, sensitive songwriting. In this way, Chatham marries abiding principles, via narratives about travelers, soldiers, lovers, and mothers, to sonic refinement and a modernist’s view of urban alienation. The band adds piano on Tightrope, including the album-closing stunner “Final Reward”, but offer plenty of tunes like “Should Have Known” and “Hawk”, banjo-and-fiddle-abetted testaments to social justice, romantic yearning, and shared experiences. It’s enough to make you want to step to the Line.


Artist: The Earls of Leicester

Album: The Earls of Leicester

Label: Rounder

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The Earls of Leicester
The Earls of Leicester

We’re prepared to take some heat for our bluegrass list this year from purists who recoil from non-traditional forms. However, those folks will be have no such concerns with the brilliantly-titled The Earls of Leicester, a feature-length tribute to the ‘50s and ‘60s output of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Curated by dobro deity Jerry Douglas (in the Uncle Josh role), the band also features Tim O’Brien on mandolin, Charlie Cushman on banjo, Barry Bales on bass, Johnny Warren (son of original Flatt & Scruggs fiddler Paul Warren) on fiddle, and Shawn Camp on lead vocals and guitar. These best-of-the-best players do their damnedest to replicate the style and arrangements of their heroes, so even Douglas keeps his solos tight and sing-songy. However, it’s Camp who steals the show here, replicating Flatt’s hillbilly whine with remarkable authenticity and craft. With hoot-‘n’-holler classics like “‘Til the End of the World Rolls Round”, “Dig a Hole in the Meadow”, and 12 others, the Earls of Leicester made the most fun bluegrass record of 2014, and with this Saturday night special, friends and neighbors, you’ll be busting out your own high harmonies in no time.


Artist: Nickel Creek

Album: A Dotted Line

Label: Nonesuch

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Nickel Creek
A Dotted Line

After Nickel Creek wrapped up its Farewell (For Now) Tour in 2007 and the band members went their separate ways, fans wondered why the fire should have to die. After all, these California kids (Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins) had, in the ‘00s, helped reinvent progressive bluegrass, gobbling up Grammys and IBMA awards, selling millions of albums, and bringing masses of new fans to acoustic music via the band’s singular brand of brainy, new-age folk-grass. Well, the wait is over, and the Creek has risen. The trio’s excellent reunion album, A Dotted Line, incorporates the best of the band’s varied styles: celestial ballads, bumblebee instrumentals, rousing newgrass, indie-rock covers, and thundering genre-bending experimentalism. Yes, we know it’s not very bluegrassy in traditional terms. But Nickel Creek was responsible for pushing bluegrass boundaries in the first place by expanding the possibilities of what could be accomplished with the trio of mandolin, fiddle, and guitar. Plus, with these aces, you know there’s some prime picking, such as the synapse-rattling instrumental “Elephant in the Corn”, the barn-sex anthem “Hayloft” (that hay gets everywhere!), and the sensational Sara-sung “Destination”. Given the layoff, the trio stared down both doubts and high expectations, but with A Dotted Line, Nickel Creek pulled off 2014’s most satisfying musical comeback.


Artist: Balsam Range

Album: Five

Label: Mountain Home

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Balsam Range

The title of Balsam Range’s Five acknowledges that the record is the band’s fifth release and also reminds us that Balsam Range is comprised of five terrific musicians who form a remarkably cohesive whole. Sure enough, The Range — who was crowned the 2014 IBMA Entertainers of the Year and finished second on our 2012 Best of Bluegrass list — have never sounded tighter than on Five, the band’s smoothest and most consistently fine record to date. Check out “Moon Over Memphis” with Darren Nicholson’s train-clatter mandolin, Marc Pruett’s rolling banjo authority, and Buddy Melton’s soaring tenor vocals. Later, the band lays down a ‘70s-style piano-and-steel country ballad with “The Future’s Not What It Used to Be”, the quiet-creek folk of “Chasing Someone Else’s Dreams”, and the capering “Monday Blues” featuring Melton’s garden-gate fiddle. Most songs on Five are freighted with the compromises that reside in the middle part of life, like “Matthew”, featuring guitarist Caleb Smith’s sturdy vocals, and the lovely album closer “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)”. Instrumentally, the quintet is rock solid throughout, busting loose on the mando-reeling “Backdraft”, for instance. Elsewhere, Balsam proves that it is one of bluegrass’s tip-top vocal groups with the a cappella hand-clapper “Stacking Up the Rocks”. It was a packed year for bluegrass, brimming with genre reformers, but Balsam Range delivered some of the year’s best-built grass by playing it straight, stitching its trademark professionalism into a sterling program of songs.


Artist: The Infamous Stringdusters

Album: Let It Go

Label: High Country

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The Infamous Stringdusters
Let It Go

Let It Go, the Infamous Stringdusters’ thrill-a-second fifth album, was named before a certain Frozen tune blew up, but make no mistake: the meticulous instrumentalism, vocal artistry, and blazing energy flying every which way on this album could reduce the entire kingdom of Arendelle to ashes. The stringdusting comes courtesy of Andy Hall (dobro), Jeremy Garrett (fiddle), Chris Pandolfi (banjo), Andy Falco (guitar), and Travis Book (bass), each of them staggeringly skillful musicians, embraced by both the jamgrass community due to their willingness to delve into musical expansiveness and by the traditionalists who hold to the band’s airtight picking and singing. Case in point is “Winds of Change”, which starts as a straight-up bluegrass thumper but then goes rogue into a dobro-fiddle-banjo cage match. There’s also the sweet, nostalgic “Summercamp” that Garrett’s fiddle hijacks for a flame-broiled middle section. “Middlefork” is a dreamy, complex instrumental waltz that few beyond the Stringdusters can play let alone compose. Best of all, the title cut brings it all home by combining the all five singers into a gospel-grass call to arms, a capper to an album about taking inventory of the past and taking one’s best shot going forward. Jamgrass bands have long carried the stereotype that their studio albums can’t stack up to their lives shows. And, yes, if it’s wicked, high-wire picking you want, a live Stringdusters’ set will give you all you can handle. But Let It Go proves once and for all that these guys are also among the best composers and record-makers in the game. In 2014, there was no denying the ‘Dusters.