It’s time for the annual challenge: Picking my “dozen” favorite bluegrass recordings for the previous year.
First, the usual cautions. This list is obviously very subjective, just one guy’s opinion. The list represents my favorites, not necessarily the best. And it’s not all-inclusive; one guy can’t possibly listen to everything. Plus, as always, I don’t rank projects that include songs I wrote. So, for example, you won’t find the latest from Darin & Brooke Aldridge, Dale Ann Bradley, Kim Robins, and a few others.
The most difficult choice, and perhaps the most controversial, was right at the top. One album was my runaway favorite for the year. Much of it isn’t bluegrass, which would ordinarily exclude it. But it did so much for bluegrass that it couldn’t be ignored. So, with my editor’s indulgence, I have a baker’s dozen list, with one outlier at the top and a dozen more conventional picks that follow.
1. Barry Waldrep and Friends Celebrate Tony Rice
This project belongs in the collection of every fan who loves bluegrass, Tony Rice, and outstanding music. As I wrote in my Bluegrass Today review of the 21-song collection, “Rice fans will already have 21 reasons to own it. But think of the uninitiated, who don’t know about him and know little or nothing about bluegrass. If they are even mildly curious to go back to the work of the master himself, bluegrass can’t help but gain new admirers.”
Highlights include Song For a Winter Night, a Gordon Lightfoot song that Rice brought to bluegrass, superbly performed by country artist Radney Foster; Jim Lauderdale’s rendition of Church Street Blues; John Cowan’s sublime vocal on Me and My Guitar; and Vince Gill’s I’ll Stay Around.
2. Tina Adair, self-titled.
When Bluegrass Today colleague John Curtis Goad reviewed this one, he wrote, “Tina Adair has one of those voices that makes you immediately stop what you’re doing to give her your full attention.” If you’ve ever heard her sing, you know what he’s talking about. This 11-song offering from Engelhardt Music Group, will have listeners paying a lot of attention. Notable songs include Won’t Be Crying Over You, Still Got A Long Way to Go, and an outstanding remake of Kathy Mattea’s Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses.
3. Renewal, Billy Strings
Critics seem to either love his music or hate it. Because the Rounder Records CD is so high on my list, it’s pretty clear where I come down. But just in case, let me say this: Billy Strings is one of the best things to happen to bluegrass music in the last 10 years. He plays with authority and sings with conviction. Highlights include This Old World, Red Daisy, and I Know It All.
4. Industrial Strength Bluegrass, various artists
Joe Mullins just might be the King Midas of bluegrass. Everything he touches turns to gold. Mullins produced this tribute to early icons of bluegrass in southwestern Ohio for Smithsonian Folkways. A quick peek at names in the credits will tell you this is special: Ronnie Bowman, Dan Tyminski, Bradley Walker, Kenny Smith, Rhonda Vincent, Doyle Lawson and others paying homage to The Stanley Brothers, Jimmy Martin, the Osborne Brothers, and Larry Sparks. The best tracks are A Face in the Crowd and When He Blessed My Soul.
5. Up All Night, The Grascals
New music from this reliably consistent sextet is always a welcome surprise to find in the mailbox. This one is extra special because it includes offerings from some of the genre’s best songwriters, including Milan Miller, Shawn Lane, Jerry Sally, Rick Lang, Donna Ulisse, Jon Weisberger, and Charles Humphrey III. Add always-stellar picking, especially from Kristin Scott Benson on banjo and Danny Roberts on mandolin, and you have a winner. Top choices are Flowers and Lace, Remember Where You’re Going, and Maybelle.
6. My Bluegrass Heart, Béla Fleck
This 19-song collection from Renew Records is a master class in playing and arranging bluegrass instrumentals. And some of the very best pickers are featured, including Molly Tuttle, Billy Strings, Sierra Hull, and Norm Pikelny. There’s not a single skippable song here, but my favorites, if you’re looking for a place to dive in, are Hug Point, This Old Road, and Boulderdash.
7. Narrowing The Gap, Amanda Cook
She could sing the phone book, as the saying goes. Fortunately she doesn’t have to because she has lots of top-shelf material to choose from, both from inside and outside her band. This record, from Mountain Fever, would be a sentimental favorite even it wasn’t so good, since it includes some the last recordings of my late friend and co-writer, Aaron “Frosty” Foster. Favorites include Get On Board and Lonesome Leaving Train.
8. Roundtable, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver
It’s hard to imagine bluegrass without Doyle and his band, but we’ll find out soon enough after his recent retirement as a bandleader. But it’s no surprise, as Bluegrass Today colleague Lee Zimmerman put it, that Roundtable is “another impeccable effort” from a guy who never mailed it in, and whose band continued to thrive and excel despite the revolving door of talent that every bandleader has to deal with over the years. The best of the best on this Billy Blue recording is This Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore. I, for one, am grateful for all the years that it did.
9. Bridges and Backroads, Jerry Salley
This guy is one of the best songwriters in bluegrass. But he’s no slouch as an artist either, breathing down-home life into such songs as Life to My Days and Miss My Miss In Mississippi. Give him valuable bonus points for being able to sing all those s-filled words cleanly. (Disclosure: Salley is responsible for my songwriting deal with Billy Blue Music, but he’d be on this list anyway. You’ll just have to take my word for it. Actually, don’t take my word for it. Listen to the record).
10. Bluegrass Troubadour, Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass
What an apt title for a record. Paisley is truly an old-school bluegrass troubadour. His first project for Pinecastle Records, includes example after example of why he’s been a repeat winner of IBMA’s male vocalist of the year trophy. My hard-to-choose favorites are Date With an Angel, and an instrumental, Fancy Gap Runaway.
11. Moxie and Mettle, Balsam Range
Like the Grascals above, you know you’re in for a treat when Balsam Range puts out new music. This Mountain Home Music CD is everything I’ve come to expect from the band: impeccable playing and powerful vocals, no matter who takes the lead. Among the dozen songs, Rivers, Rains and Runaway Trains and Grits and Grace are the ones I turn to most frequently.
12. Still Here, Steve Gulley and Tim Stafford
The sad irony, of course, is that Steve Gulley is no longer here. But the music lives on. The songs on this Mountain Home Music release remind us of Gulley’s gifts as a vocalist and songwriter, as well as the magic that happened whenever he teamed up with Stafford, be it in the writing room or the studio. So Far and She Comes Back to Me When We Sing are pure gold.
13. The Next Mountain, Rick Faris
Faris always had the voice for bluegrass. Now, as a solo artist on the Dark Shadow Recording label, he is coming into his own as a songwriter. Favorites include What I’ve Learned and Evil Hearted You. There’s also a special place in my heart for I’m Asking You Today. It’s a swing tune. Bluegrass definitely needs more swing tunes.
As noted above, this is a very subjective list. And there were a number of other offerings that didn’t make the final cut, but easily could have. Making this list gets more difficult each year. That speaks volumes about the quality of bluegrass music.