I’ve been at this reviewing game for a decade now, and for most of that time I’ve assembled some sort of best-of list at the end of the year. For a while now, it’s been Dave’s Dozen. And it still is, but only because I resisted the temptation to rechristen the list Dave’s Dozen and a Half, or even Dave’s Two Dozen.
Seriously, 2019 might have brought more great Bluegrass and Grassicana projects than any other year since I’ve been compiling my favorites. My initial run through the dozens of CDs that reached us at Bluegrass Today left me with a list of 35. It was relatively easy to pare down to 24.
But it was a struggle to get down to 15, and then to the final 12. Then came the nearly impossible task of ranking them, 1-12. By the time I was done, the crumpled pages on my office floor nearly hid the carpet.
Only the first three slots remained intact throughout the exercise. Every other entry moved around, and a couple that weren’t on the list at the start sneaked on later, at the expense of others. By the end, some present Hall of Famers (Doyle Lawson and Larry Sparks) and some future Hall of Famers (Michael Cleveland, Tim Stafford) were left on the cutting room floor. Their musical offerings were terrific and in any other year, most if not all of them would have been on the final list. But, as noted, 2019 wasn’t like any other year I remember.
As always, this is a very subjective list that reflects my opinions alone. Your mileage may vary.
Here we go:
1. Irene Kelley, Benny’s TV Repair. We could spend hours debating whether Kelley’s greatest asset is her voice or her gifted songwriting. Or we can call it a draw and move on. Benny’s TV Repair is a stellar backdrop for both. In fact, I can envision a world in which Latrobe, Pennsylvania’s, greatest export since Rolling Rock beer is both the vocalist of the year and songwriter of the year for IBMA.
A number of songs from the Mountain Fever Records project have charted, including one of my two favorites, Bluegrass Radio. (The other is the sentimental but not sappy title cut, which is a tribute to Irene’s father).
2. Darin and Brooke Aldridge, Inner Journey. As any follower of this list over time can tell, I have a soft spot for the music of Darin and Brooke Aldridge. Every year, I wrote in my review of Inner Journey, I think they can’t possibly outdo the previous record. They proved me wrong again this year, so here are the bluegrass sweethearts, back in the rarefied air near the top of my list.
For a quick taste, check out This Flower, a Kasey Chambers cover, and Emmylou, a nod to some of music’s other power couples, Johnny and June Carter Cash, and Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons.
3. Che Apalache, Rearrange My Heart. With a decidedly liberal bent and Latin-flavored approach to bluegrass that strays far from the founders, this band and this CD won’t be everybody’s jar of moonshine. But folks who don’t listen because of either or both of those reasons are missing out on some astonishing music. As I wrote, “There’s beauty to be found in the music here, no matter your leanings, thanks in part to the creativity of producer Béla Fleck.”
Go-to tracks include The Dreamer and The Wall.
4. Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers, For The Record. Billy Blue Records has made quite a splash as a new bluegrass label, with Grammy nominations, IBMA Awards and the like. But one of the label’s shrewdest moves, to me, was signing these guys and putting out this record. If you want a lesson in changing tempos, switching up styles of songs, and arranging vocals in multiple ways, let this record be your learning guide.
Check out Bacon In My Beans and That Old Wheel.
5. Carolina Blue, I Hear Bluegrass Callin’ Me. If you close your eyes and listen, you can easily believe you’re hearing a first generation band grinding out bluegrass the way Bill, Earl, Lester, Ralph, and Carter envisioned it. They live and breathe traditional bluegrass, in the studio and on stage.
Top cuts: Sometimes Good Girls Go Bad, Rusty Rails, Bluegrass Melodies.
6. Rick Faris, Breaking In Lonesome. This is Rick’s first solo project after 10 years (and counting) in the spotlight with Special Consensus. It was, as I noted in my review, worth waiting for. Faris wrote 10 of the 12 songs and co-wrote one of the others. They make a strong portfolio.
May favorites: If The Kansas River Can and How Long, the only song on the record that Faris didn’t have a hand in writing.
7. The Grascals, Straighten the Curves. When The Grascals show up in the mailbox, I know I’m in for tight picking and sublime vocals. It’s all here in this CD, even though the group went through some personnel changes since previous releases. This is country-tinged bluegrass at its best, sitting comfortably in it’s own niche between traditional and contemporary grass.
Must-listens include Heartbreak Hall of Fame and a wonderful cover of Eddie Rabbit’s Drivin’ My Life Away.
8. Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, If You Can’t Stand The Heat. This hot D.C.-area band keeps pushing the outer edge of the bluegrass envelope. Band leader Solivan worries about being pigeonholed. With this record, the band, has, indeed, reached that point. It has become the band most willing to take chances. The band’s cover of the Steely Dan classic Rikki Don’t Lose That Number is all the evidence you need.
9.Rick Lang,Gonna Sing, Gonna Shout. As a rarely performing songwriter, I have a soft spot for songwriters who do “from the pen of” projects on which they don’t appear, or make only a token appearance. But this record isn’t here for sentimental reasons. It’s here because it’s the best Gospel recording of the year in the bluegrass orbit.
Start with Thinkin’ Outside the Box, sung by Dave Adkins, and the title cut, with vocals by Claire Lynch.
10. Donna Ulisse, Time To Love. Ulisse is a songwriter’s songwriter. She has a mantle of trophies and statutes that honor her ability to string together words and melodies, and allow her to run a hugely successful series of songwriting workshops. What she doesn’t have, but should, is a big collection of hardware honoring her work as a vocalist. This lady can sing!
Find the proof in A Little Less Gone and I’ll Never Find Another You.
11. Songs From The Road Band, Waiting On a Ride. Some folks thought Charles Humphrey III took a step back when he left the Steep Canyon Rangers and reappeared with this new band. But he actually took a big step forward, as a songwriter. His terrific work is featured here, alone and with co-writers from inside and outside of bluegrass.
My favorites on this solid project are Lost in Austin and the title cut.
12. Ali Shumate, Every Bit Of Me. Ali is one of those success stories that gives hope to aspiring writers and performers everywhere. She was discovered at one of Donna Ulisse’s writing workshops and, in short order, signed a writing deal and a recording deal with Hadley Music Group. This CD offers the first fruit of that venture, and sweet fruit it is.
My faves: Mama’s Bible and I’ll Dance Forever With You.