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.

  • Darren Sullivan-Koch

    “The absence of first generation bluegrass pickers is notable but understandable, since many early recordings have not been digitized.”

    This sentence makes no sense.

    While not EVERY first-generation 45 or 78 has been made available on CD, a great deal have, and are available for licensing relatively easily. Also, “digitizing” an analog recording is no big deal: You can do it at home with fairly cheap equipment.

  • Dennis Jones

    I have hundreds of 1st Generation digital files…CD’s. The very first ones in fact, 28 songs recorded by Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys. The exclusion of any 1st Generation bands and the INCLUSION of many Non-Bluegrass acts makes me shake my head.

  • Temperance Bellerin

    Putamayo’s Bluegrass collection is to the genre that Bill Monroe began what 3.2 beer is to fermented beverages. That is to say watered-down at best. First glance at the artists and titles included in this collection indicates some desire on the part of Putamayo to be a genuine effort but first listen is nothing but a disappointment.

    Storper’s comment that great music is great music is a white-wash statement that doesn’t defend his choices for song inclusion. True the selections on this collection are all stellar performances by some of the best of the best – BUT, for my opinion, there was only one song on the entire CD that actually fit the world-wide standard for bluegrass tempo and drive. The rest were a handful of some of the best folk music recorded. Case-in-point: Frank Solivan is a world-class bluegrass mandolinist having paid his dues in the U.S. Navy bluegrass band Country Current and now his own group Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen. Frank is also a fantastic bluegrass song writer and has several recordings of his original material. So why would Putamayo overlook those songs and choose Frank’s version a well known, Kate Wolf FOLK STANDARD like “Across The Great Divide?” Nothing against Frank Solivan or his rendition of a beautiful song. But here’s a secret you may not know. Not EVERYTHING Frank does is bluegrass.

    Grandad always said you can call your horse “Mule” but that don’t make it so.

    To label this project “Bluegrass” is a serious misnomer and the danger here is that the world is not being introduced to true bluegrass but only what Putamayo THINKS is bluegrass. The miss-representation here is tantamount to the Wright Brothers selling us a bicycle while telling us it’s going to fly. We all know the small kernel of truth is there but there also has to be a whole lot more before it becomes an areoplane.

    Why-oh-why didn’t the label consult some folks who really know what bluegrass is instead of their staff of who-knows-what expertise?

    Putamayo’s Bluegrass collection is more confirmation of why they don’t let amateurs fly space shuttles.

  • David Smith

    I was quite pleased when I first saw the promotions for Putumayo’s Bluegrass release. Namely, because it brings together my two favorite bands – one of yesterday and one of today – The Seldom Scene and Town Mountain. I could listen to Dudley Connell sing a Dylan song and Phil Barker sing one of his originals all day long. Throw in instrumental powerhouses David Grisman, Frank Solivan, James Alan Shelton and Sam Bush and what you’ve got is a great collection bluegrass music. It should also be noted that this collection accomplished an all too rare feat in bluegrass: include women with tracks from Crooked Still, Uncle Earl and Alison Krauss.

    There are plenty of CD compilations of “traditional bluegrass” out there – I can picture a good six dozen or so sitting in a public radio station’s bluegrass library where I’m a bluegrass DJ. Frankly, I would rather turn a listener on to bluegrass with a track off of this Putumayo release than the vast majority of the B-side bombs of past compilations.

    Congratulations to the talented artists that made it onto this release.