Albums of the Year? YOU Decide!

Well, 2011 has come to a close, and for bluegrass, it was exceptional year. We saw new releases from nearly everyone, and many were exceptional.

It really is a great time to be a bluegrass fan. There are more albums coming out than ever before, and it is easier than ever to get bluegrass music when you want it. (Especially with the new built-in iTunes interfaces on Bluegrass Today!)

This is the time of the year when everyone comes out with those “Top How-Ever-Many In Whatever-It-Is Of 2011.” I’ve read several involving the top albums in bluegrass for 2011. One of the main lists receiving a lot of attention is Billboard’s Top 50 Bluegrass albums.

This list is based mainly on sales. For this reason, many albums on the list are clearly not released in 2011 (O, Brother Where Art Thou?), and many are on the fringe and might not be considered “bluegrass” by some people (like The Preservation Hall Jazz Band & The Del McCoury Band). Many of the albums are top-notch and would rank highly on any “top bluegrass” list. There are, however, many great albums that are not on this list. That’s where I come in!

Daniel Mullins’ Top Twelve Albums In Bluegrass Music Of 2011 That Do NOT Appear On Billboard’s Top 50 Bluegrass Albums List (Bit of a lengthy title, don’t ya think?)

12. Bearfoot – American Story

It really shocked me that this album did not appear on Billboard’s list. Bearfoot as been creating a lot of stir with their unique blend of bluegrass, new grass and Americana.

As of Wednesday, they were sitting pretty at #2 on CMT’s Pure 12-Pack Countdown. Their video of Tell Me A Story is ranked higher than Scotty McCreery, Lauren Alaina, The Civil Wars, and Chris Young, among others. The video matches the song’s wistful nature.

When popping this CD in the player, it’s hard to not put the opening track (Tell Me A Story) on repeat and leave it there. Nora Jane Struthers’ voice is simply captivating throughout the record. Why she has not received more mainstream attention is a mystery to me. In my opinion, this group is one big break away from becoming this decade’s Nickel Creek.

Standout Tracks: Tell Me A Story, The Dust, When You’re Away

11. Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver- Drive Time

Drive Time shows a new side to a living legend in the music industry. Viewed primarily as a traditionalist, this CD shows Doyle Lawson and his band playing with a more country-grass sound.

Drive Time is a more than fitting name for this 7-track album. A real driving rhythm section featuring drums and an electric bass, push the album right along. Some stark traditionalists have frowned upon the drums, forgetting that Jimmy Martin, Flatt & Scruggs, and The Osborne Brothers all used drums on some of their biggest hits. They are used tastefully, and are a great impetus in this newer sound.

Part of this change in style may be accredited to the band’s recent appearance on a Paul Simon record. No matter… you know if Doyle Lawson’s name is attached to it, it will be executed with precision and class. Drive Time is no exception. The vocal work is sky high thanks to new vocal man, Corey Hensley. Jessie Baker’s banjo work is also a bright spot on the album.

Still, the true shining star on the album is the head man: Doyle Lawson. His original instrumental The Greenbriar Hop shows why he is one of the most influential mandolin players in our music’s history. I am still in awe that Doyle Lawson has never won IBMA’s Mando-Man of the Year. It baffles me.

Although Drive Time seems a step out of the ordinary for Quicksilver fans, it’s still  a treat to listen to, and definitely worth the time.

Standout Tracks: The Greenbriar Hop, Gone At Last, Country Store

10. Charlie Sizemore – Heartache Looking For A Home

It is ironic that bluegrass lawman, Charlie Sizemore, would record a song called No Lawyers In Heaven, but I’m sure glad he did! He sings what we are all thinking regarding attorneys.

But it shouldn’t take a lawyer to convince you that this is a good album.

I am a huge fan of Charlie Sizemore’s easy going style. He sounds so laid back, and I believe he would sound exactly the same jamming on a front porch as he does on the stage of Ralph’s festival in McClure, VA.

You believe what Charlie sings, which is one reason it’s hard not to fall in love with him. His band plays great traditional bluegrass that compliments Charlie’s voice perfectly.

My favorite track on the album hands down is Charlie’s interpretation of Tom T. Hall’s Pay No Attention To Alice. This has long been one of my favorites from the pen of The Storyteller, and Charlie’s version takes the cake. The tear-stained sound of his voice makes this cut a masterpiece. If I were Sizemore, I’d use that lawyer status to sue people for not listening to this album. Ha-ha.

Standout Tracks: Pay No Attention To Alice, No Lawyers In Heaven, Down In The Quarter

9. The Crowe Brothers – Bridging The Gap

Josh and Wayne Crowe are veterans in this industry. Having learned from Raymond Fairchild, they came to traditional bluegrass naturally, and Bridging The Gap really proves the point. Their brother harmony is tighter than twin fiddles.

The Crowe Brothers exemplified the brothers sound when they tackled the old Delmore brothers’ song, Southern Moon. The tune is driven by Steve Sutton’s spicy banjo. Also a student of Fairchild, Sutton is one of the most creative traditional banjo players in the industry today. His banjo is also heard in all its glory on the old standard, I’m Going Back To Old Virginia.

Trusting In My Lord is also a highlight on the album. A great original Gospel song, the brothers sing it beautifully, and chock full of passion. All in all, this is prime example of a traditional “bluegrass brothers” sound. Make sure you don’t overlook this one.

Standout Tracks: I’m Going Back To Old Virginia, Trusting In My Lord, Southern Moon

8. The Del McCoury Band – Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe

Who more fitting to record a tribute to the Father of Bluegrass than Del McCoury? A former bluegrass boy himself, McCoury seems to sing ever more like Monroe with age. McCoury is even set to be the singing voice of Bill in the 2013 film about our music’s beloved patriarch.

This album received a lot of pre-release hype, and it lived up to every drop!

Alabama Waltz showcases Del’s vocal ability like no other, and is a true gem on the album. In addition to Del’s Monroe-esque style of singing, his band is a true all-star lineup of some of the best pickers in the industry.

The whole band is in full display on this record. John Henry provides stellar instrumental work from everyone, and proves why they are the most awarded bluegrass band in our industry.

This was definitely one of the best Bill Monroe tributes available on the year of his 100th birthday. It really surprises me that this album did not appear on Billboard’s list. Usually shown much love by Billboard, the band’s collaboration album with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band reached #22 on the list.

I am going to assume it’s because the album was released solely on vinyl or digital download. There is not currently a compact disc release of the album, and that may have hurt. It is definitely worth taking the time to download or cue up if those are not your preferred methods of listening to music. This album leaves my mouth watering for the Monroe movie soundtrack. 2013 can’t get here soon enough!

Standout Tracks: Alabama Waltz, John Henry, Brakeman’s Blues, In Despair

7. The Gibson Brothers – Help My Brother

I know. It shocked me, too. The IBMA Album of the Year was NOT present on Billboard’s Top 50 Bluegrass Albums of 2011!

The Gibson Brothers have really broken out the past two years winning big in the past pair of IBMA Award Shows.

Help My Brother is their best album yet. The album’s first two tracks were nominated for Song of the Year: Help My Brother and Walkin’ West To Memphis. Both of the tunes are very catchy, and will be stuck in your head all day.

The brothers’ tight harmony shows why they also brought home this year’s Vocal Group of the Year award. Another standout on the project is Ricky Skaggs’ special appearance on the gospel song Singing As We Rise.

One of my favorite tracks which has flown under the radar is Want Vs. Need. The song is very cleverly written, and the arrangement is quite unique. There is a reason this is the current IBMA Album of the Year, and no good reason why it is not on Billboard’s Top 50.

Standout Tracks: Walkin’ West To Memphis, Want Vs. Need, Help My Brother, Singing As We Rise

6. Dale Ann Bradley – Somewhere South Of Crazy

The current IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year’s most recent album is stellar. Somewhere South Of Crazy shows why we all love Dale Ann.

The title track was co-written by, and features Pam Tillis, but Tillis is just one of the special guests on the album. Sierra Hull shows off her masterful mandolin skills throughout the record, while the albums producer, Alison Brown, provides great work on the five-string. One of Nashville’s best, Stuart Duncan, also contributes beautiful fiddle mastery.

Steve Gulley and Dale Ann Bradley were once both members of the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, so it’s no surprise that he makes an appearance on the record. The blending of their voices is simply magical. They do a remarkable duet rendition of the Charlie Louvin hit, Will You Visit Me On Sundays.

This record makes you really excited about Steve joining up with Dale Ann. I can’t wait to hear more music from the two. Somewhere South Of Crazy has a little something for everyone: great songs, great picking, great singing, great record.

Standout Tracks: Will You Visit Me On Sundays, I Pressed Through The Crowd, Leaving Kentucky, Somewhere South Of Crazy

5. Johnny Warren & Charlie Cushman- Tribute to Fiddlin’ Paul Warren Vol. 2

If you are a fan of old-school picking, this is a can’t-miss album. The lost art of fiddle/banjo songs are brought front and center and knocked out of the park!

Johnny Warren plays the part of his father, Fiddlin’ Paul Warren; so, naturally, Charlie Cushman steps in as Earl Scruggs.

It is hard to find a better album of traditional instrumentals than this one. Although Hop Light Ladies is the only cut which features only Warren and Cushman, they are definitely meant to be the focal point of the album. Their backup band is superb though. Del McCoury plays rhythm guitar like no other, and Jerry Douglas makes his dobro sound identical to Uncle Josh. Add Bryan Sutton on the archtop guitar and you have got one of the most instrumentally gifted bands around.

One of my favorite tracks is when Ricky Skaggs steps in his mandolin for the instrumental favorite, Cattle In The Cane.

This album should be given to all beginning pickers so they can remember the meat of our music. Hard-nosed, straight ahead picking will never go out of style, and this album reminds us all of that. In an age where pushing forward is what’s recommend, by turning back the clock, Warren and Cushman go against the grain and make this album really stand out from the crowd.

Standout Tracks: Cattle In The Cane, The Old Folks, Wild Horses, Pretty Polly Ann

4. Larry Sparks – Almost Home

As of late, he has been called “The Youngest Of The Old-Timers,” and I can’t think of a more fitting title for Mr. Larry Sparks.

He has more signature songs that just about anyone (John Deere Tractor, I’ve Just Seen The Rock Of Ages, A Face In The Crowd, You Ain’t Lived, Tennessee 1949, and more!) and is sure to add to the list with Almost Home. The title track kicks the album off with Sparks’ trademark guitar picking, and you know this is going to be an album to remember.

Almost Home was nominated for Album of the Year, and I couldn’t agree more. It does a great job at showing the versatility of one of our music’s biggest icons. Whether it’s straight bluegrass, country, gospel, western, Sparks can do it all wonderfully.

He offers a great rendition of the Hank Locklin classic, Send Me The Pillow You Dream On, and Don Rigsby joins him for a hymn book favorite, Somebody Touched Me.

The true star on the record, however, is Momma. It is quintessential Sparks: a moving song delivered with powerful vocals, topped off with bluesy guitar work. If this doesn’t make you want to hug your Momma’s neck, you must not have been paying attention! Almost Home reminds us all of why we love Larry Sparks.

Standout Tracks: Momma, Somebody Touched Me, Almost Home, Send Me The Pillow You Dream On

3. Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out – Prime Tyme

It’s a “Prime Tyme” to be a fan of Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out. After this year’s IBMA Awards Show, where the band won one award and were nominated for eight, it’s plain to see that this band is no where near ready to start “slowing down.”

Prime Tyme kicks off with a new tune sure to resonate with many bluegrass fans. Old Kentucky Farmers will remind many listeners of their grandfathers and have everyone yearning for a simpler time. Sugarfoot Rag demonstrates how proficient the band is when it comes to picking – including boss man Russell Moore on guitar. The group takes this Jerry Reed standard and use it to showcase the band’s strengths across the board. The tune begins a standard tune, but ends as an instrumental piece.

Pretty Little Girl From Galax and Whippoorwill are new tunes which sound very “old school.” With driving instrumental work and straightforward lyrics, these are modern day standards.

Big Muddy is also first-rate. The Bill Castle song sounds like one the Osborne Brothers could have turned into a hit forty years ago.

This stellar project wraps up with a great ballad which will remind fans of some of the band’s early hits such as Erase The Miles. The song is a reflection on society today, but steers clear of political poles. All will find What’s This World Coming To? refreshing and will agree with its sentiment.

This album has treats for most any bluegrass fan. Strong originals, seasoned with just the right amount of tasteful covers, the material on Prime Tyme has all the ingredients to be a classic bluegrass album.

Standout Tracks: What’s This World Coming To, Big Muddy, Sugarfoot Rag, Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar

2. Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers – Hymns From The Hills

After the release of Hymns From The Hills, the current IBMA Print Media Person of the Year, Juli Thanki, stated: “It’s arguably one of the best gospel releases bluegrass music has seen in the past decade. Though it’s only been out for a couple weeks, the album feels like an old friend.” She couldn’t be more correct.

A star-studded lineup joins Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers on their first all gospel project. Ralph Stanley, Paul Williams, Rhonda Vincent, Larry Sparks, Doyle Lawson, Dale Perry, James Allan Shelton, and more make some very memorable recordings. Ralph Stanley and James Allan Shelton join the Radio Ramblers and twenty-two youth for a tear-jerking cut of Jesus Loves Me. The children sing the traditional Sunday School favorite, then Dr. Ralph steps up to the microphone to sing the song from the perspective of a senior saint.

Rhonda Vincent and Mullins dug out the old Boys From Indiana song We Missed You In Church Last Sunday. The singing is high as a kite, and they do a great rendition of Aubrey Holt’s song. Fans across the country have enjoyed Rhonda joining the Ramblers on stage to do the song when they are booked on shows together.

Some of the best tracks on the album are the Radio Ramblers by themselves. Their take on Grandpa Jones’ Fallen Leaves was named one of CMT’s Top Twenty Recommended Tracks this past March, and their a cappella version of Rock Of Ages, Keep My Soul earned them a standing ovation and encore at the Ryman Auditorium this past summer. Be Jesus To Someone Today is a beautifully written piece by Tim Stafford and Jon Weisberger. If we could all remember the words to this song, this world would be a lot better place.

The success of this album was a huge contributing factor in Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers earning their first IBMA nomination. The album reached #15 on Billboard Bluegrass, but fell short of making the year end Top 50. Hymns From The Hills is an outstanding album. Although the band is barely over five years old, the future is bright for these rising stars of bluegrass.

Standout Tracks: Be Jesus To Someone Today, Fallen Leaves, We Missed You In Church Last Sunday, Jesus Loves Me, Rock Of Ages, Keep My Soul

1. Larry Cordle – Pud Marcum’s Hangin’

With his first project on his newly formed Mighty Cord Record Label, Larry Cordle makes quite a statement. Possibly his best album ever, this collection of all new songs written by Cordle is my choice for the Best Bluegrass Album of 2011.

It’s hard not to fall in love with Cordle’s songs. Basing most off personal experience, Cordle’s wit, humor, and outlook on life remind everyone of a simpler time. The title track features the high lonesome sound of Del McCoury as he and Cordle sing about the last public hanging in Lawrence County, KY: Pud Marcum’s Hangin’.

Another fan favorite off the album is Shade Tree Mechanic. Everyone knows a Mr. Fix-It who can (in Cordle’s words) “fix anything from a pocket watch to a Porsche.” Cordle’s friend “Ole’ Greasy” was one of those. Cordle paints a colorful picture about his friend in this lovable song.

The album’s lone gospel number will definitely be a blessing to you. Co-written by Ronnie Bowman, Gone On Before features Bowman on tenor as well. The song reminds us that when our loved ones pass away, “they’re not really gone, just gone on before.”

One of my favorites on the album is Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink (And Sometimes A Drink Takes A Man). This mournful song tells of an out of control alcoholic whose life is taken over by alcohol. It is one of the best songs I’ve heard in years. America, Where Have You Gone has created quite a stir. It reminds us of the way things used to be, and features Cordle’s quick-witted analysis of the way things are going today. I know several people who have mailed copies of the song to Congress! I am not opposed to that idea at all. Ha-ha.

These are just a few of the incredible songs Cordle shares with us on Pud Marcums Hangin’. Brown Check, Hello My Name Is Coal, and Molly are some of the other standouts on the album. Pud Marcum’s Hangin’ will make you pat your foot, make you laugh, make you cry, and make you fall in love with “The King of Cool,” the one and only, The Mighty Cord.

Standout Tracks: Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink, America, Where Have You Gone, Pud Marcum’s Hangin’, Shade Tree Mechanic, Gone On Before

Happy New Year everybody!

Share this:

About the Author

Daniel Mullins

Daniel Mullins is an IBMA award-winning journalist and broadcaster from southwestern Ohio, with an American Studies degree from Cedarville University. He hosts the Walls of Time: Bluegrass Podcast and his daily radio program, The Daniel Mullins Midday Music Spectacular, on the Real Roots Radio network. He also serves as the station’s music director, programming country, bluegrass, and Americana music.