As 2016 comes to a close, it’s time to look back over all of the music that has been released over the past year. From big name stars on major labels to regional bands just starting out, from straightforward fifties-style traditional grass to “acousticana,” folk-flavored music, it’s all come through the Bluegrass Today headquarters for listen and review. Out of everything I’ve heard this year, here are my picks for the Best Bluegrass of 2016 (in no particular order).
Original Traditional – Blue Highway
The title says it all – Blue Highway made it a point to write original songs that sound as if they might have been originally performed years ago. While the group is always solid, this was (in my opinion), their best album in recent years, hearkening back to the nineties and songs like Lonesome Pine, In the Gravel Yard, and the like. In addition, fans who were worried about replacing Rob Ickes need not fret; Gaven Largent proves himself a top up-and-coming talent here.
Listen to: Wilkes County Clay, Top of the Ridge, If Lonesome Don’t Kill Me
Croweology – Rickey Wasson
If you know me, you know there are few musicians I respect more than J.D. Crowe. He and his early bands set the tone for so much of today’s bluegrass – Rounder 0044, anyone? Rickey Wasson, Crowe’s longtime lead singer, takes a number of his favorite New South songs and gives them just slight updates here, calling on fellow Crowe fans like Mo Pitney, Adam Steffey, and Ron Stewart (whose ability to play like Crowe is truly amazing) to help him. This is essential listening for any fan of J.D. Crowe or modern traditional bluegrass in general.
Listen to: You Can Have Her, God’s Own Singer, You Can Share My Blanket
Poor Boy’s Pleasure – Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice
If you want straight-up, drive-filled, lonesome bluegrass, look no further than Sisk and his excellent band. His latest album – and his first for Mountain Fever Records – checks off all the classic bluegrass themes: country living, drinking, heartbreak, and loving the Lord. The pickers are in top form throughout and Sisk fills the album with plenty of his Stanley-influenced vocals. Lead single Longneck Blues, a duet with Ronnie Bowman, even picked up Recorded Event of the Year at the 2016 IBMA Awards.
Listen to: Cold in Carolina, Jimmy, JD, and Paul, Hang a Wreath
Sacred Memories – Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers
Another stalwart for traditional bluegrass is Ohio’s Joe Mullins, with his entertaining stage shows, high lonesome vocals, and well-chosen songs. Sacred Memories was a fine Gospel album, led by popular single and IBMA Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year All Dressed Up, a touching number that finds a farmer ready to enter heaven. With a few covers of old favorites and a few newer songs, I agree with David Morris that it “could end up as one of the best bluegrass CDs of 2016, Gospel or otherwise.”
Listen to: All Dressed Up, When the Sun of Life Goes Down, Sacred Memories
Modern Day Man – Josh Williams
Did I mention that I love J.D. Crowe? His influence (and that of New South lead singer Keith Whitley) is evident throughout this project, which he produced. The album included several new recordings of Williams’ fan favorites, some country covers, and (I’m sure to the dismay of a few traditionalists) drums throughout. Williams has a voice well-suited to both country and modern traditional bluegrass, and he shows it off well here. I’m already looking forward to another solo album from him.
Listen to: Modern Day Man, Prodigal Son, Mordecai
Bridging the Tradition – Lonesome River Band
Twenty-five years ago, LRB released Carrying the Tradition, an album that has probably influenced more of today’s young pickers than almost any other. This year, they brought some of that classic sound back with Bridging the Tradition, a great album that combined modern traditional and country sounds. New member Jesse Smathers proved that he fits in quite well with the group, offering strong lead vocals on several songs.
Listen to: Thunder and Lightning, Old Swinging Bridge, Rock Bottom
Dave Adkins – Dave Adkins
The man with the big heart and bigger voice released his second solo album this year, much to the delight of fans of his soulful vocals. He relied on some great songwriters this time around, pulling from the likes of Dawn Kenney, David Morris, Ray Edwards, Larry Cordle, and others. Several of the songs have found radio success, including recent truck-driving hit Turn and Burn. He’s another artist that has a bit of a country tinge to his music, and I’m a big fan of the sound.
Listen to: Fool-o-sophy, A Whole Lot More to Tell, It’s Not Over (Till I Get Over You)
Drifter – Volume Five
As good as Volume Five is, you’d expect them to be a bigger name in bluegrass. Somehow, they seem to fly under the radar while continually putting out tracks that tell great stories. I particularly enjoy how they reach deep into the bluegrass catalog, pulling out awesome songs that most listeners had probably forgotten. Lead vocalist and fiddler Glenn Harrell is also, simply put, one of the best male vocalists in bluegrass right now. They’ve had a few big radio hits from this album, and I’m looking forward to the day they rack up a few IBMA awards.
Listen to: Alaskan Gold, Tall Pines, Ranching Man
Right Beside You – Jeff White
It’s awesome to hear a solo bluegrass album from Jeff White, who has spent quite a bit of time in the country world as of late. And what a mix of neat pre-bluegrass songs, classic grass, and more recent numbers! I was probably more excited than I should have been when I heard Run Little Rabbit Run on Sirius/XM radio for the first time earlier this year. Anyone who likes Stringbean is tops in my book.
Listen to: Run Little Rabbit Run, Wise County Jail, Blue Trail of Sorrow
Rattle & Roar – The Earls of Leicester
Does this one even need an explanation? They’re the Entertainers of the Year. They’ve recreated one of the best sounds in the history of bluegrass music. They are some of the best musicians to be found in any genre of music. Over the past several years, the Earls have taken the bluegrass world by storm, and I love it. I don’t believe this album received quite as many accolades as their first, but it’s still great.
Listen to: The Train That Carried My Girl from Town, You Can Feel it in Your Soul, I’m Working on a Road (to Glory Land)
Honorable Mention: Welcome Home – The Gospel Plowboys
Most of the other names on this list are familiar to almost any bluegrass fan, with several songs on the radio and the charts throughout the year. The Gospel Plowboys are a more regionally-performing band, newly added to Mountain Fever’s roster, but their album Welcome Home stopped me in my tracks when I first listened to it this summer. They have some of the best bluegrass vocal harmonies I have ever heard and a solid selection of songs on this album. They’re another band I’m excited about hearing more from.
Listen to: It Is Well With My Soul, Red River, The Dream
Honorable Mention: A Distant Horizon – Jeff Brown & Still Lonesome
After spending several years as one of the best sidemen in the business, Jeff Brown is now making his own mark in the world of bluegrass. He seems to have quite a knack for finding solid material, and this sophomore release is proof. He leads a band of exceptional young musicians through a set of great songs. His unique mountain-tinged vocals come through clearly on this one. With the passing of Ralph Stanley earlier this year, it’s good to know there’s another voice out there projecting the lonesome mountain sound.
Listen to: Appalachia is My Name, When the Water’s Too High, Let Come and Go What May