The good news is that much of that music was very well done. That’s the bad news, too, at the moment, because I’m trying to winnow the list to my 10 or so favorites for the year.
I actually came up with a baker’s dozen, but it’s really two lists – a top 10 of bluegrass records (by my admittedly broad definition) and three bonus CDs from friends of bluegrass.
There are some limitations. I can’t listen to everything, so something terrific might have fallen through the cracks. Your mileage may vary. If it does, please add your favorites in the comments section below.
Here we go:
1) Doctor’s Orders by Don Rigsby. I try to keep an open mind, but I wasn’t expecting much when I first heard about this project. Tribute records often serve only to remind me how good the original artist was and send me scurrying off in that direction. But when I stopped hearing about this homage to Ralph Stanley and got a chance to listen, I fell in love.
Rigsby has one of the best, and most unheralded, voices in bluegrass, and he puts it to great use here on songs that come mostly from deep in the good doctor’s extensive catalog. And, like Stanley, he surrounds that voice with a lineup of fine pickers and singers, including Ron Stewart, Barry Bales, Charlie Sizemore, Larry Sparks, James Alan Shelton and Doctor Ralph himself. The result is one of the best tribute albums I’ve heard, and my choice for the best work of 2013.
2) On the Edge by Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen. I sold these guys short when I reviewed this project early in the year, saying that in a few years they might move into bluegrass music’s top tier. After this project, their first for Compass Records, a Momentum Award for guitarist Chris Luqeutte, banjo player of the year honors for Mike Munford, and several other nominations, they’re there.
This is Solivan’s strongest recording to date, blending always strong instrumentation with top-shelf harmonies.
3) They Called It Music by the Gibson Brothers. Here’s how solid this year’s bluegrass recordings were as a group. Two years ago, I called this band’s Help My Brother the album of the year. They Called It Music is even better, yet here it is in third place. Eric and Leigh keep getting better as singers and songwriters. They’ll soon need new wings on their homes to display all the trophies. Up next for them: A CD honoring bluegrass music’s grand tradition of brother duets. The Gibsons are already part of that tradition, a reputation that They Called It Music will help polish.
4) Dear Sister by The Claire Lynch Band. The band is tight and inventive, the song selection is exquisite, but one thing outranks everything else on this CD. That voice! As I wrote when I reviewed this one, “she could be accompanied by sandpaper and dental drills and I’d listen over and over again.” I’m still listening.
5) Hall of Fame Bluegrass! by Junior Sisk and Joe Mullins. Another tribute, this one focusing on lesser-known songs from bluegrass pioneers and legends. Alone, Junior and Joe are stellar bluegrass singers. Together, towed by Joe’s soaring tenor, they reach a new level of vocal accomplishment. It’s enough to make me hope they’ll work on another collaboration. Soon, please!
6) Hammer Down by the Steeldrivers. People are dyin’ and cryin’ and lyin’ all over this wonderful recording. In my review, I called Hammer Down “an imaginative tour of the dark side…all held together by the emotionally spot-on fiddling of Tammy Rogers and the big, soulful voice of Gary Nichols.”
7) Three Chords and the Truth by James King. Start with great material, in this case classic country songs that are all grassed up. Add King’s expressive lead and sweet harmonies from Don Rigsby and Dudley Connell. The result: King’s best effort in years.
8) This World Oft Can Be by Della Mae. These ladies have quickly claimed a spot on the list of bluegrass music’s rising stars. My Bluegrass Today colleague John Goad’s characterization was spot on: “Not quite bluegrass, not quite folk and not quite pop, but well executed and enjoyable throughout.”
9) God Didn’t Choose Sides, various artists. As regular readers of my reviews may know, I’m a sucker for story songs. So how could I not fall – hard – for this ambitious collection of songs based on true stories from the Civil War, delivered by some of the best pickers and singers in the business? The lyrics and thoroughly researched liner notes are great texts for songwriters and students of history. Some of the music found here will be played 50 years from now during the bicentennial commemoration of the war.
10) It’s Just A Road by the Boxcars. These guys record the same way they perform. They just step up to the microphone and let it rip. Top to bottom, the Boxcars are probably the most proficient pickers in the genre and Adam Steffey and Ron Stewart are at the top of the heap. Add first-string songwriting and solid vocals to the mix and you have a recipe for repeat success, along with a spot in my top 10.
Finally, I want to close out the year with a nod to three fantastic records that don’t fit on a bluegrass list. The pickers do play bluegrass at times, just not here. But if you share my belief that great music is great music, you should own these recordings:
Love Has Come For You, by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell. Neat songs stripped to their bare essence, sometimes just a banjo and voice.
New Frontier by Missy Raines and the New Hip. Missy has been hiding a great voice behind that upright bass…until now.
Bach: Sonatas and Partitas, Vol. 1, by Chris Thile. Eloquent and elegant solo mandolin work. The guy really is a genius!
Now, let’s see what 2014 will bring to the mailbox!