11 for ‘11: A Critic’s (Very) Subjective Picks

Say one thing about 2011: It was a terrific year for lovers of bluegrass music, both traditionalists and big tenters. In fact, there were so many top-notch albums issued last year that I had trouble figuring out my Top 10 favorites.

I would have had the same problem with a Top 20, too, but the boss put his foot down. So here, stretching the boundaries just a bit, are one critic’s (very) subjective Top 11 for ’11.

Just two rules: The album had to come out during the calendar year and it had to have some grounding in bluegrass. Disclosures: I’m a big tenter and I’m a sucker for great lyrics. What else would you expect from a songwriter?

Here goes:

1. Help My Brother – The Gibson Brothers

I first heard much of this material early last year, live. I thought, and wrote, at the time that if the record was as strong as the live material, it could be IBMA’s album of the year. It was.

This album has everything you could want: Top-shelf picking, the best harmonies on the festival circuit today and terrific writing. For my money, the very best here are Joe Newberry’s Singing as We Rise and Leigh Gibson’s Safe Passage. But there’s not a filler song in the bunch.

Nearly a year after its release, Help My Brother is still in heavy rotation in my CD player.

2. Sounds of Home – Blue Highway

This one, because of contest deadlines, should get big-time attention for IBMA album of the year for 2012. It’s all here – strong harmonies, masterful arrangements and incredible picking, including the best resonator guitar playing on the planet by Rob Ickes.

Bluebird Days has been getting a lot of spins, but for my money, one of the strongest songs is “Heather and Billy,” co-written by Steve Gulley and the band’s own Tim Stafford. This true story about foster parents is a great tune AND it makes you think.

3. Goat Rodeo Sessions – Stuart Duncan, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer, Yo-Yo Ma, Brian Losch

I warned you I live in big tent. Individually, these guys are all monster pickers. Together, they’re even better. Is it bluegrass?

Not by most traditional definitions. But it’s bluegrassy, and it’s outstanding music. I’m sure many Yo-Yo Ma fans will be scratching their heads when they listen to his project, which is classified as “classical” by Sony. They’re just have to get over it, too.

But seriously, if you’re a hard core bluegrass traditionalist who is willing to buy just one album that is outside your comfort zone, make it this one.

4. Prime Tyme – Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out

Conversely, if you’re new to bluegrass – maybe brought in accidentally by the Goat Rodeo Sessions or stumbling across the genre while following Steve Martin – you can find a full dose of tradition on Prime Tyme, from Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out.

Listen to If Your Heart Should Ever Roll This Way Again and Pretty Little Girl from Galax, and you’ll understand why Russell is IBMA’s reigning male vocalist of the year.

5. I’ll Take Love – Louisa Branscomb and friends

If bluegrass music had an all-star team, you’d find many of its members on this stellar project – Claire Lynch, Dale Ann Bradley, Steve Gulley, Missy Raines, Rob Ickes, Alison Krauss, Jim Hurst, Josh Williams, Stuart Duncan, Alan Bibey and more.

All 13 songs came from Louisa’s prolific pen (along with a host of co-writers).

6. Somewhere South of Crazy – Dale Ann Bradley

This gem, from the reigning female vocalist of the year, is filled with surprises, from the title cut co-write with Pam Tillis to her live solo performance of Old Southern Porches.

Steve Gulley’s harmonies are an added treat. Now that he’s a permanent member of Dale Ann’s band, we’ll get to hear even more of them. (And maybe somebody could talk them into putting together an album of duets!)

7. Paper Airplane – Alison Krauss and Union Station.

Alison is a masterful interpreter of other people’s songs, as she demonstrates once again on this cozy album. Exhibit A is Jackson Browne’s My Opening Farewell.

Exhibit B is British folk rocker Richard Thompson’s Dimming of the Day.

8. Ravens & Crows, Dehlia Low

Another of my big tent choices. I can’t get enough of this Asheville, N.C.-based band. The old-time mountain sound of Anya Hinkle’s voice may rub some folks the wrong way, but I love the raw emotion, especially when paired with Stacy Claude’s sublime harmonies.

Band members crafted most of the songs, and the writing, across the board, is some of the best of 2011. Musically, the band is strong, too, driven by Aaron Balance on resonator guitar.

For a taste, listen to State of Jefferson. Then buy the whole thing.

9. Almost Home – by Larry Sparks

Nobody tugs on the heartstrings quite like Larry. For proof, check out There’s More That Holds This Picture, and Picture Me There.

This is another strong collection of songs from the master.

10. Newtown – Kati Penn and Newtown

A stellar debut. Kati’s voice would carry any band. But here, she’s one of four talented lead singers sharing lead duties, keeping things fresh and exciting. The band is tight, too. Seems obvious to me that Newtown will get some backing for emerging artist in this year’s IBMA voting.

11. Daybreak  – Sierra Hull

She’s been on stage for so long, it’s easy to forget that Sierra is just 20 years old. She plays like a wizened veteran on this solid record, and her singing and writing are coming along nicely, as she repeatedly demonstrates here.

OK, you’ve heard my choices. What are yours?

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.