It’s time for my annual compilation of favorite recordings of 2017. It is decidedly subjective, not necessarily the best overall, but what caught my ear and imagination.
There’s just one caveat: I don’t include recordings that include songs or liner notes that I had a hand in writing. Anything else is eligible, provided it meets my admittedly broad definition of bluegrass.
As always, your mileage may vary. Please note your favorites in the comments section.
- Darrin and Brooke Aldridge, Faster and Farther (Mountain Home Music). This imaginative and impressive collection stood out the first time I listened. And it’s still at the top of my pile months later. This duo just keeps getting better. I, for one, can’t wait to see what comes next. Among my favorite cuts are Ian Tyson’s classic Someday Soon and the Carl Jackson-penned Eugene and Diane. But there’s not a filler song to found.
- Ned Luberecki, Take Five. Luberecki, a talented sideman, jumped off the deep end when he released this eclectic solo collection. There is, to be sure, some straight-ahead bluegrass, but also plenty of other influences, such as Celtic, jazz, country, blues and, for good measure, a riff on the theme from Star Trek. Whenever I want to be surprised, I pop this disk in the player. I still hear something new every time.
- The Grascals, Before Breakfast (Mountain Home). When I think of the Grascals, I expect some of the crispest, cleanest sounds in bluegrass. Before Breakfast delivers just that, from the opening notes of Sleepin’ With the Reaper (Becky Buller and Grant Williams) to the final fade of Clear Corn Liquor (Tim Stafford and Bobby Starrnes), The breadth of the project can be measured in two songs, Delia, written by Jon Weisberger, Charlie Chamberlain and Charles R. Humphrey III, and Pathway of Teardrops, from Wayne P. Walker, Webb Pierce and June Hazlewood.
- Donna Ulisse, Breakin’ Easy (Mountain Home). Ulisse’s resume keeps growing. She was IBMA’s songwriter of the year in 2016 and wrote the song of the year in 2017. She’s in fine voice here – fine enough to be an early contender for female vocalist of the year next fall. Among the highlights, from the standpoint of terrific singing and top shelf songwriting, are Back Home Feelin’ Again and A Little Past Lonely, both written by Ulisse and Marc Rossi.
- Flatt Lonesome, Silence in These Walls (Mountain Home). Who knew that heartbreak and longing could sound so beautiful? Fortunately, the members of the band and co-producer Danny Roberts did. The result is this breathtaking collection. I’ll be honest. The first time I listened, I was put off by the absence of a full-throttle, breakneck song to serve as a change of pace from all of the melancholy. I got over that in hurry, thanks largely to the emotionally charged vocals of the three siblings at the heart of the band – Charli Robertson and her twin brother, Buddy, and their sister Kelsi Robertson Harrigill.
- Hammertowne, Hillbilly Heroes (Mountain Fever). No bells and whistles here. Just solid, straight bluegrass. These guys remind me a lot of the Boxcars in their early days. If you’re not familiar with the band’s work, check out the title cut. You’ll hear that vibe throughout this fine project.
- Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Life Is A Story (Mountain Home). It’s Doyle Lawson. Need I say more? Favorite tracks include Life To My Days (Jerry Salley, Lee Black and Devin McGlamery), Derailed (Paula Breedlove and Brad Davis) and Cry Across Kansas (Dlae Pyatt and Mike Evans).
- Nate Lee, Plays Well With Others. Yes. Yes, he does. This is the only EP to make my list, but the six songs offer some of the best picking I heard all year. No surprise, given guest appearances by Jim Hurst, Matt Wingate, Luberecki, Kyle Tuttle and others, along with Lee on mandolin, fiddle and clawhammer banjo.
- Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers, The Story We Tell (Rebel). Another winner from one of the busiest guys in bluegrass. He’s on stage, he’s on the radio, he’s on the IBMA board. And somehow, he manages to deliver another in a string of graceful traditional bluegrass recordings.
- Gina Clowes, True Colors (Mountain Home). Clowes is probably best known as the tasteful new banjo picker for Chris Jones and the Night Drivers. The big surprise here, at least for me, was her wonderful voice, especially on Puppet Show and the title cut. She also shines as a writer, accounting for all but one of the dozen tracks.
- Dale Ann Bradley, Dale Ann Bradley (Pinecastle Records). She could sing the phone book (they still make them, right?). Fortunately, she’s got a bunch of great songs here. Among them, Carter Stanley’s I’ll Just Go Away stands head and shoulders above the rest. It’s a drop-dead gorgeous duet with Vince Gill. Enough said.
- Bobby Osborne, Original (Compass). At an age when most of his contemporaries are retired or gone, Bobby Osborne is the Eveready Bunny of bluegrass. He keeps going and going and going. Fifty years after Rocky Top, Original offers a showcase for a true original.
Among those that nearly cracked Dave’s Dozen: Molly Tuttle, Rise; Mac Wiseman, I Sang the Song; Lonesome River Band, Mayhayley’s House; Carolina Blue, Sounds of Kentucky Grass; Steve Gulley and New Pinnacle, Time Won’t Wait.