Based solely on Nielsen SoundScan sales numbers, the Billboard bluegrass charts can sometimes be a misrepresentation of what is actually popular in bluegrass music. Part of this comes from the fact that many bluegrass bands (and labels) do not report to SoundScan. Also, Billboard’s definition of bluegrass may be a bit more liberal than some might like, knocking more mainstream bluegrass acts out of the running. I’m sorry, but I don’t care how good a record is, the average bluegrass band will not be able to outsell acts such as Nickel Creek and Old Crow Medicine Show who appeal to such a large amount of fans from outside of bluegrass.
One of the biggest flaws in Billboard’s system is their ability to define what is or is not a “sale.” Unfortunately, their definition of a sale is not “the exchange of money for product.” For Billboard, a factor in determining a sale is venue. Their list of unacceptable venues includes campsites and churches, which definitely affects final sale numbers for bluegrass artists in particular. Now, I’m not saying that the chart would look drastically different if those sales were counted, but the principle of discrediting certain artists’ sales due to the venue at which the sale occurred is unethical. In my opinion, I don’t care if an artist sells a CD at Madison Square Gardens or to a guy on the side of a dirt road in Goose Rock, KY, a sale is a sale… period.
Regardless, being based purely on sales figures can often skew the results when trying to determine the tops in bluegrass. The Billboard bluegrass chart stays relatively stagnant for most of the year. Here is their year end list:
25. Red River Drifter – Michael Martin Murphy
24. Carry Me Back – Old Crow Medicine Show
23. Cluck Ol’ Hen: Live – Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby
22. When I’m Free – Hot Rize
21. Let It Go – Infamous Stringdusters
20. Memories and Moments – Tim O’Brien & Darrell Scott
19. The Three Bells – Mike Auldridge, Jerry Douglas, & Rob Ickes
18. The Broken Circle Breakdown Soundtrack
17. Bass & Mandolin – Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer
16. Best of Bluegrass: Collector’s Edition – Steve Ivey
15. The Earls of Leicester – The Earls of Leicester
14. Deep Roots – Steven Curtis Chapman
13. If Sorrows Swim – Greensky Bluegrass
12. Timeless Treasures: Bluegrass Gospel – Jonathan Widger, Sarah Moore, & Randy Nichols
11. Tell The Ones I Love – Steep Canyon Rangers
10. Only Me – Rhonda Vincent
9. Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn – Bela Fleck & Abigail Washburn
8. Live At The First Avenue – Trampled By Turtles
7. The Living Years – The Isaacs
6. Bluegrass Gospel – Various Artists
5. Live – Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers ft. Edie Brickell
4. I’m A Stranger Here – The Devil Makes Three
3. Love Has Come For You – Steve Martin & Edie Brickell
2. The Bluegrass Album – Alan Jackson
1. A Dotted Line – Nickel Creek
Sales should not be the sole criteria when determining the best albums in any genre, but particularly in a niche market such as bluegrass. Our music has so many facets and styles, it’s nearly impossible to concoct a “be all, end all” list catered to everyone’s taste. However, sales figures alone is surely not the way to attempt such an endeavor.
Below is my feeble attempt to rank some of our genre’s best which did not make it on Billboard’s Top 25 Bluegrass Albums for 2014. As others have said, this is an extremely difficult task. It is hard to pick your favorites every year, but the strength of this year’s bluegrass offerings is staggering.
Honorable Mentions (These are in no particular order.)
Lonesome River Band – Turn On A Dime
LRB’s first original release following a series of retrospective albums proved to be the band’s best album in a while. Turn On A Dime had LRB pushing themselves in new territory, which I loved to see. Her Love Won’t Turn On A Dime has dominated the charts for the past few weeks, but for my taste, Bonnie Brown is the album’s star.
Larry Stephenson – Pull Your Savior In
Larry’s Gospel music is some of his most popular, so it was nice to see him release another all-Gospel album. Pull Your Savior In includes a mixture of sacred songs old and new. If You Want To Live Forever, Thank God I’m On My Way, and the original title track are two of my favorites on the album. Larry Stephenson is a model of consistency both on stage and on record, and Pull Your Savior In is no exception.
Larry Sparks – Lonesome and Then Some: A 50th Anniversary Celebration
Larry Sparks reminded us all of his hall of fame resume (once again, why the heck hasn’t he been inducted yet?) with his latest album. Celebrating five decades of being a bluegrass icon, Lonesome and Then Some features a mixture of bluegrass classics and new songs. While Bitterweeds has been the album’s hit single, Will You Be Satisfied That Way?, Going Up Home To Live In Green Pastures (featuring Alison Krauss and Judy Marshall), and an historic live recording of In The Pines are great as well. The hand’s down standout track is Savior’s Precious Blood though featuring just Sparks and his guitar- do you really need anything else?
Mac Wiseman – Songs From My Mother’s Hand
This has been a banner year for “The Voice With A Heart,” highlighted by his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. At nearly ninety years old, Mac recorded the most personal album of his career in 2014. Songs From My Mother’s Hand is filled with songs Mac learned as a boy that his mother wrote out by hand as she heard them on the radio. Hearing Mac sing such old songs as Blue Ridge Mountain Blues, You’re A Flower Blooming In The Wildwood, and Put My Little Shoes Away is a real treat.
Darrell Webb – Dream Big: A 20 Year Celebration
Whether picking or singing, Darrell Webb is one of the most talented men in bluegrass. Having played with a virtual who’s who of bluegrass over the past two decades, his twentieth anniversary celebration includes a myriad of special guests. So Far with Ronnie Bowman is incredible; I’m a bit surprised it hasn’t received more radio airplay. Bad Old Yesterdays, Folks Like Us (featuring Dailey & Vincent), and Flying South To Dixie (featuring The Grascals) are strong as well.
Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick – Sing The Songs of Vern & Ray
Some areas of the country have a very distinct regional bluegrass sound. Many of these regional artists have had a very strong influence on bluegrass today, although they may not have ever been household names in the bluegrass world. One such example is California’s Vern & Ray. Ashamedly, I was not very familiar with Very & Ray’s music or their impact on west coast bluegrass. Thankfully, I learned quite a bit from Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick’s tribute album. You could feel the love in this project as Laurie and Kathy paid homage to their heroes, and the result is a lot of fun. Laurie and Kathy caused me to learn more about Vern & Ray, due to this loving tribute, so I’d say their mission was accomplished. Highlights include To Hell With The Land, Montana Cowboy, My Clinch Mountain Home, and Field of Flowers.
Trinity River Band – Better Than Blue
Better Than Blue serves as a great introduction to the Trinity River Band for those who are unfamiliar with this rising Florida group. This family band from Callahan, FL features Sarah Harris front and center, who is quickly making a name for herself as one of bluegrass’ best up-and-coming female vocalists. A two-time IBMA Momentum Award nominee, Sarah’s gorgeous voice is well-displayed on Better Than Blue. Brother, Josh Harris is a great instrumentalist whose banjo and dobro work are helping hone the band’s modern sound as well. Other than the Top 5 song Better Than Blue, My Heart Will Find Its Way To You and I’ll Love You Just The Same are stellar. Better Than Blue is a promising sign of things to come for Trinity River Band.
Tim Stafford – Just To Hear The Whistle Blow
Tim Stafford was named the 2014 Songwriter of the Year by the IBMA, and Just To Hear The Whistle Blow has to be a large reason why (in conjunction with Blue Highway’s The Game of course). Stafford’s first solo album in a decade, Just To Hear The Whistle Blow was worth the wait. Worry’s Like A Rocking Chair (featuring Marty Raybon) and the hit title track received heavy radio airplay this summer, and for good reason. This album is filled with great instrumental selections as well. Poodle On The Dashboard is easily the coolest original instrumental song I’ve heard in years.
Darren Nicholson – Things Left Undone
A member of the award-winning Balsam Range, Darren Nicholson’s latest solo album features something for everyone. Darren draws from a variety of influences on Things Left Undone, including bluegrass, country, and southern rock. Harley Allen’s Like My Dog was a country hit for Billy Currington a few years back, but I prefer Darren’s version on this record. Things Left Undone is a powerful song, while Durango showcases Darren’s smooth baritone. Bluegrass Stomp highlights Darren’s impressive mandolin chops and the fiery banjo work of Steve Sutton.
Bryan Sutton – Into My Own
Bryan Sutton has long been one of our genre’s premier guitar players, but Into My Own is his first venture as a vocalist. I’ll assume that a Grammy-nomination should serve as confirmation that he did just fine. Bryan’s signature guitar stylings are on full display with Cricket On The Hearth, Log Jam, and Watson’s Blues, while his singing is terrific on Guy Clark’s Anyhow, I Love You and Swannanoa Tunnel. Hopefully, we’ll get more albums featuring Bryan’s voice in the future, because it was a wonderful surprise.
The Top Twenty
20. John Bowman – Worship Him
John Bowman has been a beloved bluegrass vocalist over the past twenty years, having worked alongside Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, J.D. Crowe & The New South, The Isaacs, and as a founding member of The Boxcars. This year, he decided to leave bluegrass full-time to focus on his ministry. John has successfully combined singing and preaching for the past few years, and is an in-demand evangelist. Worship Him features John as one may see him at a service – just he and his guitar singing songs of the spirit. The simple arrangements and heartfelt delivery are sure to be a blessing.
Key Tracks: I’m On The Last Mile, Summer’s Gone (My God Made It All), God’s Not Dead, Zion’s Hill
19. Shawn Lane – Mountain Songs
This album flew under many radars this year, and that’s a shame. Shawn Lane’s voice sounds both new and old at the same time, making him one of my favorite bluegrass vocalists. Mountain Songs consists of a variety of original songs. Lane’s family is included on many songs, and the album has a real “labor of love” feel to it. Be sure to check this one out if you missed it in 2014.
Key Tracks: We Must Be In Heaven, Journey Of A Soldier, A Mother’s Prayer, Charlestown
18. Seldom Scene – Long Time… Seldom Scene
A de facto fortieth anniversary celebration, the Scene’s first new album in seven years makes old favorites from the Seldom Scene catalog new again. In addition to the “new” band lineup (which has been together for over fifteen years), original members John Starling and Tom Gray were brought in to help re-record these classics. Members of the Seldom Scene family (both figuratively and literally), Emmylou Harris, Rickie Simpkins, and Chris Eldridge joined in the fun as well for this touching tribute to this hall of fame group’s legacy of four decades and counting.
Key Tracks: Wait A Minute; Paradise; Like I Used To Do; It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
17. Rob McCoury – The 5-String Flame Thrower
Rob McCoury is one of the premiere banjo players of his generation. His powerful right hand has helped define the sound of The Del McCoury Band for the past twenty-five years. On his first solo album, Rob is backed by possibly the best studio band (The Del McCoury Band) and delivers a fine collection of banjo favorites. Rob also has friends and heroes, The Osborne Brothers help out on a track or two as well. Although Rob’s first solo record was a long time coming, hopefully his sophomore endeavor comes sooner rather than later.
Key Tracks: Lime House Blues, John Henry, I’ve Lost You, Blackjack
16. Spinney Brothers – Tried & True
Bluegrass’ most widely accepted international band, The Spinney Brothers’ thick Canadian accent disappears when they start singing. One of the most exciting performances at the 25th Annual IBMA Awards Show in Raleigh, NC was the Spinney Brothers’ new song, My Music Comes From Bill. A great traditional bluegrass song from Kentucky songwriter, Bill Castle, I feel this Monroe tribute number is already a strong candidate for 2015 Song of the Year. Tried & True features many other great new bluegrass songs, as we have come to expect from The Spinney Brothers. Tried & True is a must-have for traditional bluegrass fans.
Key Tracks: My Music Comes From Bill, Gonna Catch A Train, She Doesn’t Mourn Anymore, Regena
15. Mountain Faith – Blue
Mountain Faith’s third album and first non-Gospel endeavor did not disappoint. Summer McMahan is one of the best female voices in bluegrass today, and Blue will only clue everyone else in to what we already know: that this band deserves a lot more recognition. In addition to making great music, they’re even better folks. A variety of material and inventive arrangements, makes for an exciting listening experience. Blue was one of 2014’s most underappreciated releases.
Key Tracks: Feeling Blue, Long Lonesome Road, If You Are Ever Down In Dallas, Headed For A City
14. The Primitive Quartet – It’s Real
2014 was an eventful year for this legendary bluegrass gospel group. In addition to celebrating their fortieth anniversary, the band lost beloved mandolin player, Norman Wilson, quite unexpectedly. It’s Real is the band’s best album in years. The Primitve Quartet is known for always having great original Gospel material, most of which comes from the pen of Reagan Riddle, and It’s Real does not disappoint. Leaving The Land Of The Dying is the album’s crown jewel. Sadly, it has been played in honor of Brother Norman Wilson since his passing.
Key Tracks: Leaving The Land Of The Dying, Just Three Little Words, I Am Forgiven, The Beggar And The King
13. Danny Roberts – Nighthawk
Danny Roberts of The Grascals has been one of bluegrass’ top mandolin men for the past decade, but somehow he fails to get the credit he is due. Nighthawk was my favorite instrumental album of the year, and would be a shoe-in for that now-defunct IBMA awards category. Filled with original instrumentals, Nighthawk avoids the seeming repetitiveness associated with many instrumental records. These original tunes are all fresh, and each has a personality all its own. Joined by mando greats such as Ronnie McCoury and Sam Bush, Nighthawk was my surprise album of 2014.
Key Tracks: Swing-a-Long, F-5 Rag, Big Stone Gap, New Gil Ramble
12. Crowe Brothers – Forty Years Old
The Crowe Brothers keep getting better. After paying their dues alongside the “King of the Smoky Mountain Banjo Players,” Raymond Fairchild, The Crowe Brothers have been real traditional favorites at bluegrass festivals the past several years. In addition to tight brother harmony, the Crowe Brothers feature great picking from Steve Sutton and Brian Blaylock. Forty Years Old really appeals to the classic country fan in me, as the album includes many great old country classics. The new material on this record is strong as well, including the single from Tom T. and Dixie Hall.
Key Tracks: I’ve Got The Moon On My Side, Excuse Me, I Think I’ve Got A Heartache, Livin’ In A Mobile Home, Lost Highway
11. Michael Cleveland – On Down The Line
The first new album from Flamekeeper in over three years, On Down The Line was worth the wait. Of course Michael’s fiddle playing is the star, especially on the album’s three powerful instrumentals – any of which could win Instrumental Performance of the Year in 2015. The recorded debut of this most recent Flamekeeper lineup is nearly as exciting as seeing them on stage. Filled with great songs from writers such as Mark “Brink” Brinkman, Aubrey Holt, and guitar man, Josh Richards, On Down The Line may be Flamekeeper’s strongest album.
Key Tracks: Jack O’ Diamonds, Fiddlin’ Joe, That Ol’ Train, Come Along Jody
10. Becky Buller – ‘Tween Earth and Sky
A true triple threat in our industry, Becky’s singing, playing, and writing are all on full display on ‘Tween Earth and Sky. Although she collaborates with special guests on much of the album, Becky is the undisputed star on this record. Her fiddle is filled with “ancient tones,” while her voice sounds as fresh as spring. This dichotomy of a new sound mixed with an old soul makes for an exciting and fulfilling listening experience. Featuring a mix of contemporary and more traditionally-oriented material, ‘Tween Earth and Sky is a joy.
Key Tracks: Southern Flavor, Nothin’ To You, Queen of the Mountain Bootleggers, Thank You
9. Junior Sisk – Trouble Follows Me
Junior Sisk & Rambler’s Choice’s fifth album for Rebel Records may be their best to date. The album’s opening track and debut single, Honky-Tonked To Death has been a hit on bluegrass radio, but the album is filled with great songs and performances. One of the most popular voices in traditional bluegrass, Junior’s voice is on full display on Trouble Follows Me. His lonesome sound is equally comfortable on driving numbers such as Trouble Follows Me, or more reflective songs like Walk Slow. Junior proves that down-the-middle, hard core bluegrass can still be successful and relevant in the 21st century.
Key Tracks: Don’t Think About It Too Long, Walk Slow, Honky-Tonked To Death, Trouble Follows Me
8. Special Consensus & Friends – Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver
Chicago-based bluegrass band, Special Consensus reached a new “Rocky Mountain High” with their powerful tribute to John Denver. Although a successful band for going on four decades, Country Boy helped garner Special C with the band’s first two IBMA Awards. As the title suggests, the album features bluegrass interpretations of John Denver songs. Although the marriage seems strange, it works surprisingly well. This may be Greg Cahill’s best band lineup in forty years of Special C, and they are one of the hottest acts at bluegrass festivals across the county. Joined by a host of special guests, Country Boy is a real treat.
Key Tracks: Wild Montana Skies, Thank God I’m A Country Boy, This Old Guitar, Back Home Again
7. Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver – Open Carefully, Message Inside
I don’t know how Doyle does it, but somehow he continues to be one of the hardest working men in bluegrass. His latest edition of Quicksilver is one of his finest in years, and Open Carefully, Message Inside was Doyle’s first of three records in a nine month span! The album hearkens to the classic Quicksilver Gospel sound that has helped redefine bluegrass Gospel over the past thirty years, earmarked by tight harmonies. This doesn’t mean that Quicksilver is stagnant by any means. Doyle is not afraid of changing to fit his band’s strengths, and Open Carefully, Message Inside shows a man and a band still striving for perfection, even when they have nothing left to prove.
Key Track: Lead Me To That Fountain, Thank You Dear God, I Sailed Back, He Made The Tree
6. Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time – All-Star Duets
An album ten years in the making, All-Star Duets is worth the wait. Larry Cordle has been one of the best country music songwriters since Ricky Skaggs took Highway 40 Blues to the top of the charts in the ’80s. He has since had songs recorded by nearly everyone in the upper echelon of country music. The Mighty Cord called many of these country stars into the studio to re-record their favorite Cordle songs as bluegrass duets with the man himself. As Cordle has said, the album works because although these songs were originally recorded country style, all of his songs have always had a bluegrass feel. I have to agree, as the songs sound like vintage Lonesome Standard Time. The list of stars on this album is staggering, as it reads as a who’s who of country music from the past twenty years. All-Star Duets ought to help reawaken country fans to bluegrass music, and for that, we should all be thankful.
Key Tracks: Two Highways, The Fields of Home, Rough Around The Edges, The Bigger The Fool (The Harder The Fall)
5. Balsam Range – Five
2014 was a banner year for North Carolina’s Balsam Range. They continued their push as one of bluegrass’ top bands taking home Male Vocalist of the Year, Vocal Group of the Year, and Entertainer of the Year honors at this year’s IBMA Awards Show. They also released their fifth album, which may be even better than their 2013 Album of the Year winner, Papertown. Moon Over Memphis has been one of the biggest songs of the year, while Stacking Up The Rocks has been one of 2014’s most popular gospel numbers. Soaring vocals and memorable songs solidify Balsam Range’s place among bluegrass’ elite.
Key Tracks: Moon Over Memphis, Stacking Up The Rocks, From A Georgia Battlefield, Monday Blues, Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)
4. Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers – Another Day From Life
Following the success of his and Junior Sisk’s successful Hall of Fame Bluegrass!, Joe Mullins returns with The Radio Ramblers for Another Day From Life. The first album to feature band members Randy Barnes and Duane Sparks also proves to be the band’s best album to date. The sheer variety in material is impressive, with songs from sources as diverse as Bill Gaither and Darrell Scott to some of today’s most popular bluegrass writers. Easily the most contemporary album of which Mullins has played a part while still remaining very Radio Ramblers, Another Day From Life has something for everyone – a wedding song, a mining song, a prison song, a working song, a patriotic song, and more. The latest Radio Ramblers album is sure to please both traditional and contemporary.
Key Tracks: Now The Summer’s Gone, The Last Parade, Miss Molly, Every Road Leads Back To You, Because He Lives
3. Flatt Lonesome – Too
In less than two years since their recorded debut, Flatt Lonesome have enjoyed one of the most impressive rises to success in recent bluegrass history. Named the 2014 IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year, Flatt Lonesome has been winning fans young and old with their fresh style of traditional bluegrass. Too has garnered the band three Top Five songs, with So Far peaking at #1. Their heartfelt harmonies are some of the best in the business. Matched with their instrumental prowess, Flatt Lonesome is quickly becoming a bluegrass tour-de-force. The band’s youthful energy has helped perk young people’s interest in bluegrass music again, which I find spectacular. Every time I listen to this album, something new and exciting catches my ear. Unlike Dumb and Dumber To, Flatt Lonesome Too surpasses the original.
Key Tracks: So Far, Dangerous Dan, I Can’t Be Bothered, He Still Hears, How Long
2. Crowe, Lawson, & Williams – Standing Tall and Tough
Over one hundred and fifty combined years of experience in bluegrass music went in to creating one of the best albums of 2014. Hall of famers J.D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, and Paul Williams teamed up for the follow-up to the successful Old Friends Get Together, and in the process, educated everyone on how to “get the job done.” I agree wholeheartedly with my friend (and bluegrass hero), John Curtis Goad: “I could listen to Paul Williams do Hills of Roane County all day long.” Paul is one of the strongest vocalists in our music’s history, and Standing Tall and Tough reminds us all of that. Although two of these three “Old Friends” are retired from full-time touring, don’t think that they have lost a step – they’re are at the top of their game. With this album, Crowe, Lawson, and Williams solidify that they are, indeed, Standing Tall & Tough.
Key Tracks: Standing Tall and Tough, The Hills of Roane County, Blue Memories, Fraulein, Do You Live What You Preach
1. Blue Highway – The Game
In their twentieth year, Blue Highway shows no signs of diminishing results. Their drive for making powerfully fresh bluegrass remains just as strong as it was two decades ago. Their tenth studio album is my favorite album of 2014. Jam-packed with great original songs, The Game is one of Blue Highway’s best albums to date. From the first note, you know you are in for a powerful record. They remain the kings of cool, as they continue to push our music in new and exciting directions, while remaining firmly rooted in bluegrass. In addition to the exciting instrumental work and beautiful vocal we have come to expect, The Game features some of the band’s best songwriting. This is one of the most complete bluegrass albums I heard in years, and is an instant classic.
Key Tracks: The Game, Remind Me Of You, Just To Have A Job, Church Bell Wedding Blues, All The Things You Do
There you have it – the thirty albums above did not make Billboard’s Year End Top 25 Bluegrass Albums. Let that sink in – the the albums above were not among the year’s twenty-five best-selling bluegrass albums, according to Billboard. While Billboard’s list did feature some great albums, it is by no means a true representation of the best our genre had to offer in 2014.
This was remarkably strong year for our kind of music. What were some of your favorite bluegrass albums in 2014? Let us know in the comments below.
Happy New Year! Here’s to 2015 being as great for bluegrass as 2014 was!