As a Bluegrass Today correspondent, I get to listen to a lot of music during the year. Some on CDs, some live. Some traditional bluegrass, some most definitely not. Some of it terrific, some of it, well, not so much.
But one of the most difficult parts of the job comes at the end of the year, when my boss (there were adjectives here that he removed) orders up my list of the best of the best.
Last year, I came up with a Top 11 for 2011. This year, instead of shooting for 12, I decided to narrow the list and present just six favorites from the past year, coupled with six projects I’m eagerly awaiting in 2013.
Six is a tough cutoff. There were easily three or four times that many recorded projects worth a yearend mention, but I can’t complain since I set the limit myself.
So here goes:
Six Favorites From 2012
- Detour: A Better Place. Last August, walking from the parking lot toward the stage at the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival, I heard a voice that stopped me in my tracks. It belonged to Missy Armstrong, who I think is destined to start showing up among the nominees for IBMA female vocalist of the year. I picked up the CD that day in the merchandise tent and it’s been in regular rotation ever since. Jeff Rose is a talented songwriter, the band is tight and the project is top-shelf.
- Town Mountain: Leave the Bottle. In my review a few months back, I praised these guys for “tight picking and comfortable harmonies that aren’t overdubbed to soulless perfection.” And I concluded, “This, my friends, is how bluegrass is supposed to sound.” After many more listens, I still feel that way. Enough said.
- Larry Stephenson: What Really Matters. There’s something here for everybody, traditional bluegrass, a bit of experimentation and, as you expect when Larry’s name is on the cover, outstanding vocals. Here’s how I closed my review: “Larry Stephenson and his band have reminded us that what really matters is the music. And the music here is sublime.”
- The Hillbenders: Can You Hear Me. These guys bend the rules and stretch the genre way beyond the comfort level of some traditionalists. But the picking is first rate and they have a ton of fun. I dare anyone to watch the high-energy performances of Jim Rea (guitar and vocals) and Chad Graves (resophonic guitar) and try to sit still. It can’t be done. They bring the same drive to this CD.
- Jim Hurst: Intrepid. “Three Hands” Hurst (he can’t possibly play that way with just two) is, for my money, right up there with Tony Rice as bluegrass guitar royalty. All the evidence needed to back up that statement is right here on this gem of an album. It’s mostly Jim and his guitar, and occasionally his voice. Noting else is needed.
- American Drive: American Drive. Take the marquee name away from J.D. Crowe and the New South and you have this wonderful new-old band. Sure, J.D. leaves big shoes to fill, but this debut project demonstrates that the musicians he left behind when he retired have no intention of resting on his laurels. The CD has already yielded a Number One song, “Long Haul Trucking Man.”
SIX TO LOOK FORWARD TO
- The Gibson Brothers. IBMA’s reigning entertainers of the year just finished up in the studio, and I can’t wait to hear what they have in store as a follow-up to their much-decorated Help My Brother.
- Dale Ann Bradley. Her projects are always solid, but with Steve Gulley in the band, I’m expecting to hear some terrific duets that will put her on an even higher pedestal.
- Dave Adkins and Republik Steele. Gulley’s involved in this one, too, producing the Eastern Kentucky band’s debut on the Rural Rhythm label. The title cut, That’s Just the Way I Roll, is available as a single. Dave Adkins has a big voice, and seems destined for a big ride.
- The Claire Lynch Band. If Claire isn’t the sweetheart of the rodeo, she should be. After a long run with Rounder Records, she’s working on her Compass debut with her spectacular band. The one song I’ve heard from this one, Dear Sister, is a keeper.
- Missy Raines and the New Hip. The most decorated female instrumentalist in IBMA history has made it clear that the new project isn’t bluegrass. That doesn’t matter to me because I know her roots will show.
- Mike Auldridge, Rob Ickes and Jerry Douglas. Even before Mike’s death on Dec. 29, I was antsy to hear this all-Dobro project from three of the masters. His passing is sad, but knowing we’ll all get to hear him playing with two of his protégés, takes away some of the sting.