Putumayo Bluegrass Collection searches for new ears

Putumayo’s Bluegrass CollectionYou might not agree with all of the song selections and artist choices on Putumayo’s Bluegrass Collection, which comes out May 22, but you have to acknowledge that Putumayo founder Dan Storper is getting the music we love in front of a lot of potential fans.

Putumayo’s music compilations routinely sell 100,000 copies or more around the world, a figure most bluegrass bands can only dream about.

While Putumayo has focused on American music since 2000, mostly jazz and blues, this is the label’s first bluegrass collection.

As a means of showcasing bluegrass to newcomers, this is an entertaining, albeit limited collection. The absence of first generation bluegrass pickers is notable but understandable, since many early recordings have not been digitized.

Also, some of the song choices for bands that are represented are a bit puzzling. But that’s a very subjective judgment.

“We may have left off some obvious candidates,” Storper said. The goal was to feature “known artists but relatively unknown songs,” rather than the best known or best-selling songs.

And you can’t say he took any shortcuts. The Putumayo boss told me his listened to 2,000 songs to come up with the final 13. “I listened to every Alison Krauss song,” he said. “I listened to every Peter Rowan song, every Sam Bush song.”

For me, the highlights include James Alan Shelton’s soulful rendition of Shady Grove, New Railroad from Crooked Still and the Seldom Scene’s performance of Bob Dylan’s Boots of Spanish Leather, with Dudley Connell’s spirited lead vocal and the band’s trademark harmonies and picking.

And special mention must go to Peter Rowan. His reggae-tinged version of Man of Constant Sorrow stands up well to the Ralph Stanley recording that has become a bluegrass anthem.

Rowan actually does double duty for Putumayo. His performance of Take Me Back to the Range with Don Edwards, is included on Cowboy Playground, a compilation of classic cowboy songs for kids that the label is also releasing on May 22.

Intentionally or not, the bluegrass collection plays into the ongoing debate about how big the bluegrass tent should be, since genre-stretching bands such as Railroad Earth and Uncle Earl are represented here.

But Storper isn’t taking sides.

“We’re trying not to say it’s got to be about the old timers or about the new timers,” he said. “Great music is great music.”

For the record, Storper isn’t a big fan of drums. “What I’m mostly about is melody. I tend to favor acoustic music.”

Still, drums are present on a handful of songs here, a testament to Storper’s own big-tent approach to song selection.

“It’s not just about what I like,” he said. The entire staff, of all ages and ethic backgrounds, had a say in the debate. “It’s a tough crowd,” he laughed.

“The hope is we found songs that will be appreciated, not just in the United States but also around the world.”

That’s a lot of potential new ears for our music. And that, above all else, is a very good thing.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.