It’s time for one of my favorite things – listening back through all the terrific bluegrass music that was made in 2018 and picking my 12 favorites.
It’s also one of the most difficult things I do. Narrowing the list to 30 or so was pretty easy, and I got down to 20 without much anguish. Getting from there to 12 was hard work. But, hey, that’s why they pay me the big bucks, right?
There are just a couple of rules. To make the list, the project must have been released during the calendar year. And I don’t consider projects if they include songs that I’ve written. I don’t consider sales, chart success, awards or nominations. I simply take what I like and try to rank the projects from 1 to 12. Your mileage may vary.
1. Crepe Paper Heart, Becky Buller. I don’t think anyone in bluegrass has had a better three or four years than Becky Buller. Her last record was powerful good. This one is even better. As I wrote in my Bluegrass Today review, “These are times that invite getting lost in music, and this is a good record to get lost in.” Buller is at the top of her game as a songwriter and the band is sharp. That, some special guests and Buller’s voice make for a winning combination. There’s not a wasted track here. But my favorites are Heart of the House, She Loved Sunflowers and Written in the Back of the Book.
2. Epilogue: A Tribute to John Duffey, various artists. Aside from Bill Monroe, probably no one in bluegrass gets talked about years after his death more than John Duffey. This masterful collection, a labor of love for co-producer and Duffey protégé Akira Otsuka, will give those stories, and Duffey’s music, extended life. A who’s who of guests, including some of Duffey’s mates from the Seldom Scene, laid down tracks over 15 years. Trust me, it was worth the wait. Favorite tracks: If That’s the Way You Feel, poignantly sung by Amanda Smith, and Some Old Day, delivered with gusto by John Cowan.
3. Tales From East Kentucky, Larry Cordle. Seems everybody loves Cord, as a songwriter and singer. If there’s anybody who doesn’t, they will after they hear this one. He’s an honest, no-frills singer, with a voice as comfortable as an old flannel shirt. But to me, his songs are what elevate Tales this far up the list. Bluegrass Today reviewer Lee Zimmerman noted, “He demonstrates an ability to write material that’s personal in perspective but universal in its truths.” One of the top songs here is A Large Detroit American Automobile, though the line “and I’d love to get my hands around the neck of a Prius man” hits uncomfortably close to the driveway for me!
4. Ricochet, Kristy Cox. Like Buller, Kristy Cox is making a repeat visit to my favorites list. This Australian transplant captured lightning in a bottle when she teamed up with producer and writer Jerry Salley a couple of years ago, and the combination is still magical. On Ricochet, Cox steps it up a notch or two as a vocalist, making her one of the best in the business. Lots of strong songs here, but my favorite is a heartbreaking duet with Brandon Rickman on A Bed This Cold, which Rickman wrote with Salley.
5. From Texas To Tennessee, The Family Sowell. Meeting and getting to know the members of this family band over the last two years was fun. But this CD blew me away. I wrote, without hyperbole, that From Texas to Tennessee was “one of the best projects I’ve heard in 2018.” It’s still in regular rotation – quite a tribute with all the new music that lands in my mailbox and my inbox. You’ll find 11 songs here, blending pure joy with a dose of salvation. My top choice is Dusty Gravel Road, written by Salley (he’s everywhere), band dad Guynn Sowell, and one of the band kids, John-Mark Sowell.
6. Brand New Shade of Blue, Junior Sisk. Deep breath, everybody. When Junior announced that he was putting his band in mothballs, it didn’t mean the end of his musical career. Brand New Shade of Blue is evidence that his career is in fine shape and that traditional bluegrass will continue to flow through his fingers and vocal cords. It’s like he never left because, well, he never left. Among the best songs here is a light-hearted take on the battle of the sexes, Honey Do List, and one about a battle of wills, The Whiskey and the Guitar.
7. Sister Sadie II. Here’s how good Sister Sadie is: Dale Ann Bradley, who has an impressive number of nominations and wins as IBMA female vocalist of the year, is just one of the outstanding lead singers in the band. One thing she brought along from her solo act is a propensity to add just the right pop or rock song to each project, a great way to get your band heard outside the usual circle. Here it’s Dan Fogelberg’s Morning Sky. But the real show stopper for me is Losing You Blues.
8. Never Standing Still, Shannon Slaughter. When Bluegrass Today’s John Curtis Goad reviewed this one, he placed Slaughter at the intersection of bluegrass and acoustic country. It’s a good place to be. Slaughter is one of my favorite singer-songwriters, and his live performances are not to be missed. He captures a lot of the magic and emotion of his live sets here, with and without backing vocals from his wife, Heather. There’s no better way to dip into this project than That Old County Road, which topped the charts for a while this year and was a radio favorite.
9. Rivers and Roads, Special Consensus. These guys just step up to the microphone and deliver, show after show, CD after CD. I might, if I thought about it long enough, come up with a better project they’ve worked on, but that would mean missing the fun and beauty that runs through Rivers and Roads. The song that’s stuck in my head is She Took the Tennessee River, written by Becky Buller (she’s everywhere, too) and sung by the legendary Bobby Osborne.
10. Jim Lauderdale and Roland White. This is the oldest new record you’ll find, recorded nearly 40 years ago but not released at the time. Then the masters got lost. Fortunately, they resurfaced and this project finally saw the light of day. As I wrote in my review, “This charming collection stands as a reminder of an era when music wasn’t polished within an inch of its life in the studio, and when breaks didn’t sound as though some of the pickers are being paid by the note.” My top pick: Lauderdale’s Forgive and Forget.
11. Carter Stanley’s Eyes, Peter Rowan. On it’s own, the music from Peter Rowan is worthy of making this list. But the music only describes part of the importance of this project. It also, as I noted in my review, “guarantees that Carter’s dripping-with-lonely (vocal) style will stay with us for years to come.” No surprise, then, that my go-to song in this collection is The Light in Carter Stanley’s Eyes.
12. Del McCoury Still Sings Bluegrass, Del McCoury. The Travelin’s McCourys, self-titled. OK, I cheated. I couldn’t pick between these two wonderful records with lots of overlap in personnel and approach, and put them both on my list. So sue me! The best part of Del’s CD is in the title – Del McCoury STILL sings bluegrass. He’s a treasure and every song is a treat. Take a listen to That Ol’ Train and you’ll know that Del is still chugging down the track. His boys and others in his band have plenty of steam, too. Check out Borderline.
There you have it. I’ve left some fantastic work on the cutting room floor, but that’s the nature of lists. I’d love to see your own choices in the comments below.
On to 2019. I’ve already listened to some stout contenders for the next list.