The good news for bluegrass fans last year: A lot of terrific music was released. So much, in fact, that it made picking my annual best-of list harder than usual. I eliminated bands that recorded songs I wrote because of an obvious conflict, narrowed my list to 16 or 17, but still had trouble getting down to 10 from there.
In fact, I never got down to 10! So here you have it: Dave’s Dozen.
1) Flatt Lonesome – Runaway Train. This is how it’s done, folks. Exceptional harmonies, strong picking, and a great pace drove this project straight to the top of my list. As I wrote in my Bluegrass Today review a while back, “Nearly everything about this record is top-notch, making it a roadmap for bands looking to make a CD that will please existing fans and make new ones.”
2) Band of Ruhks. As supergroups go, the Earls of Leicester get most of the attention in the bluegrass world. But this trio – Ronnie Bowman, Don Rigsby and Kenny Smith – is equally stout. My only complaint is that the Ruhks aren’t touring enough to allow folks to discover how good they are. But in terms of the record, I wrote, “This is a fresh new approach that will have people talking all summer long.” And, at least in my case, deep into the winter, too.
3) Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out – It’s About Time. Russell Moore has one of the best voices in bluegrass, so you know anything he puts out is going to sound wonderful. But this time, he outdid himself, making a record that was, to the ears of Bluegrass Today Editor John Lawless, “about as close to perfect as I can imagine.” Who am I to argue with the boss?
4) SteelDrivers – The Muscle Shoals Recordings. Yep, Chris Stapleton had a fantastic year, but so did his former band. This record just might be the band’s best yet, firmly planting the Drivers in the top tier of progressive bluegrass bands. Some have argued that this isn’t bluegrass, but you’ll never convince me otherwise.
5) Darin & Brooke Aldridge – Snapshots. The Aldridges just keep getting better. Listen to Johnny Cash’s Tennessee Flattop Box, Gillian Welch’s Annabelle or the Everly Brothers Let It Be Me. You won’t hear a better male-female duet anywhere in bluegrass.
6) Gibson Brothers – Brotherhood. And now, for the best same-gender duet team in bluegrass. The Gibson Brothers pay tribute here to musicians on a list they will one day be part of: Legendary bluegrass brother acts. The results are sublime. The Everly Brothers show up on this record, too. 2015 was a big year in bluegrass for the non-bluegrass Everlys.
7) Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver – In Session. I can’t say it any better than my Bluegrass Today colleague Daniel Mullins did in his review: “In Session establishes that while Doyle Lawson has nothing left to prove to the bluegrass community, he still has a lot to offer.” Indeed.
8) Ron Block – Hogan’s House of Music. As a member of Alison Krauss and Union Station, Ron Block is one of the best sidemen around. With this collection of 16 instrumentals, a mix of originals and classics, he reminds us that he has to chops to stand in the center stage spotlights any time he wants.
9) Gold Heart – Places I’ve Been. The three young Gold sisters came into their own on this record, taking their harmonies and songwriting to new levels. John Lawless wrote: “Places I’ve Been is a strong release, with a fresh sound and engaging new songs.” Raleigh, my favorite song here, still pops into my head – and into my CD player – on a regular basis.
10) Dale Ann Bradley – Pocket Full of Keys. Once again, Bradley’s strong but tender voice carries her CD into the upper echelon. Listen carefully to just about any song on this record – or any other of hers for that matter – and you’ll hear a masterful, sincere delivery.
11) Blue Mafia – Pray for Rain. Listeners have no trouble figuring out how to classify the music of Tony and Dara Wray and their band. It’s bluegrass through and through. On the strength of this CD and the band’s powerful stage show, I expect big things for Blue Mafia down the road.
12) Steve Gulley & New Pinnacle. Gulley took a chance last year, leaving a successful gig with Dale Ann Bradley to step out on his own with a young band. But the band’s first single hit the charts right out of the gate, and he hasn’t looked back since.