2011 Best of Bluegrass
Whether you’re a fan of traditional, progressive, or any and all other permutations of bluegrass music, chances are you found a few favorite new albums this past year. Here are our Top 20 bluegrass records of 2011.
Drawing equally on John Hartford and The Beatles, The Farewell Drifters are one of acoustic music’s most vibrant young bands. Their sophomore album abounds with Beach Boys-esque harmonies on “We Go Together” and “I’ve Had Enough,” while frontman Zach Bevill’s sweet, boyish vocals appeal to the Mumford/Avett crossover crowd.
As the title of this album suggests, Skaggs went heavy on the bluegrass for the re-recordings of some of his most successful country chart toppers in the 1980s like “Cajun Moon,” “Heartbroke,” and the already pretty grassy “Country Boy.” Skaggs’ non-country/bluegrass projects of late, like the contemporary Christian album Mosaic, are mighty fine, but it’s always a treat to hear him go back to his roots.
The third studio album’s the charm for the Asheville, North Carolina band that blends bluegrass, country, and old-time. Smartly written originals and well-chosen covers of songs from the Carter Family (“Cannonball Blues”) and Willie Nelson and Hank Cochran (“What Do You Think of Her Now,” with an extra verse penned by Stacy Claude) pay tribute to Dehlia Low’s roots and influences while never sounding stale.
The Styx/Damn Yankees guitarist wrote or co-wrote each of his eleven songs on his bluegrass debut, which also features guests like Sam Bush, Alison Krauss, and Dwight Yoakam, who supplies harmony vocals on album opener “The Next Right Thing.” It’s not a flawless record by any means, but it’s enjoyable enough that we hope Shaw will stick around bluegrass music for a while.
Gilmore’s first album since 2005 finds him performing well-known songs from the 1930s and ‘40s by artists like Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, Bill Monroe, and Charlie Poole. His reedy voice and the old-timey sound of The Wronglers (a band which included the late Warren Hellman on banjo) suit the material, especially on the Carter Family weeper “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.” While it would have been nice to hear Gilmore and The Wronglers tackle a few lesser-known songs, Heirloom Music is an album that feels as familiar and comfortable as a favorite pair of jeans.
Nell Robinson didn’t even sing in public until halfway through her 40s. Now, at 50, she’s released a sophomore album that makes us wish she’d gotten in front of a microphone decades sooner. With a voice that occasionally brings to mind Iris Dement, Robinson serves up bluegrass, country, and even a dash of Cajun music. Her well-written originals and covers of songs from Hank Williams and Loretta Lynn are enjoyable, but the highlight of the album is two yipping, yodelicious bonus tracks by The Henriettas, a duo (Robinson and Cary Sheldon) that pays tribute to the DeZurik Sisters. Also on the album are anecdotes told by Robinson’s relatives that shed some light onto the stories that inspired the songs; listening in, you almost feel like one of the family.
The third CD from this family band is a slice of bluegrass heaven thanks to the angelic voices of sisters Melissa Triplett and Emily and Alysha Bankester (parents Phil and Doreen contribute vocals as well, while son-in-law Kyle Triplett mans the banjo). “Dance to the St. Anne’s Reel” is delicate and lovely while also showing off the band’s picking prowess as they tear through a version of the reel to end the song. Meanwhile, the tender “My Love Will Follow You,” featuring Grascal Jamie Johnson, is one of the best bluegrass duets of the year.
Numerous tributes to the Father of Bluegrass were released in 2011, when Monroe would have celebrated his 100th birthday, but McCoury, a former Blue Grass Boy, recorded the best one. Eschewing hits like “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” McCoury chose lesser known songs like “Lonesome Truck Driver’s Blues.” The band is sharp as always, especially Jason Carter, who played up to three fiddle parts for each song. With Old Memories, the new Bluegrass Hall of Famer has done his old boss proud. Read Juli Thanki’s interview with Del McCoury here.
The name might not be familiar to the average television watcher, but fans of the gritty show Justified have heard the band’s music in several episodes. The Life We Live is a strong sophomore album from an up-and-coming band that boasts three lead singers and some very talented songwriters. Case in point: ghost story “Mary Flynn,” featuring eerie backing vocals from Dale Ann Bradley.
Americana statesman Jim Lauderdale and Grateful Dead songwriter Robert Hunter are batting 1.000 with their collaborations. Reason and Rhyme, the pair’s third album together, is a joy to listen to from start to finish, thanks to Hunter’s stellar, slightly off-kilter writing (best exemplified by “Tiger and the Monkey”), Lauderdale’s ability to bring the characters in the songs to life, and expert musicians like Mike Compton and producer Randy Kohrs tearing through the arrangements.
An all-star roster of artists, including John Cowan, Josh Williams, and Claire Lynch, paid tribute to Louisa Branscomb, who wrote “Steel Rails” and dozens of other bluegrass/country songs. The instrumental work, featuring Alison Brown and Rob Ickes, is simply stellar, and you can’t get much better than the vocals on the title track, sung by Dale Ann Bradley with Alison Krauss and Steve Gulley singing harmony. Whether or not Branscomb’s name was familiar to a listener before he or she picked up the album, it’s hard to imagine anyone not walking away as a fan of her writing.
The joyous kiss-off song “Jubilation Day” and hilarious “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” show off Steve Martin’s famous comedic skills, but the expert banjo player, who plays both Scruggs-style and clawhammer banjo, is far more than just a punchline. He and the Steep Canyon Rangers, led by the smooth-voiced Woody Platt, make a crack team, and guests like Paul McCartney and the Dixie Chicks round out a fine album of contemporary bluegrass.
Donna Ulisse just keeps getting better. There’s not a bum track to be found on this record, her fourth, but there are two exceptional songs: the upbeat “Let it Rain,” which rolls like a summer storm, and the spooky ghost story/Civil War murder ballad “Shady Glen,” about a woman who poisons Union soldiers.
We can’t object to the newest album from bluegrass music’s resident barrister, which features stone cold bluegrass and hot picking on tracks like “Slow Goin'” and “Red Wicked Wine,” the latter of which features a guest appearance from his old boss Ralph Stanley. Heartache is punctuated with songs that display a wry sense of humor, as Sizemore proclaims his love for a Hollywood star in “Ashley Judd” and gives a nod to his second job with a tongue-in-cheek version of “No Lawyers in Heaven.”
Blue Highway’s 17-year history seems to revolve around a singular motto: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Sounds of Home is another album in a discography full of top shelf contemporary bluegrass. Strong writing, tight harmonies, and flawless picking make this one of the best albums of the year as the guys go from the lightning-quick instrumental “Roaring Creek” to the coal mining ballad “Only Seventeen,” even flirting with country on the classic-sounding “My Heart Was Made to Love You,” a song written by Wayne Taylor that sounds as though it was first recorded a good half-century ago.
In case their covers of songs from the Louvin Brothers and Jim and Jesse on this album didn’t make it clear, Eric and Leigh Gibson are another link in a long chain of outstanding brother duos. They’ve got the best harmonies in bluegrass today, and they—and the rest of the band—are in excellent form with this record. From the saga found in the ballad “Safe Passage,” to the toetapping swagger of “Walking West to Memphis” to the tragic, but somehow darkly funny “One Car Funeral,” it’s no surprise Help My Brother won Album of the Year honors at the IBMA Awards.
The recent Berklee grad delighted us this year with her second Rounder album, branching out with infectious swing tune “Best Buy,” which, along with the rest of the album, features impressive mandolin chops. Her songwriting has matured since Secrets; here, Hull wrote or co-wrote seven of the album’s twelve tracks. Barely in her 20s, Hull has an extremely bright future ahead of her in bluegrass. We look forward to seeing where she goes from here.
With its stellar collection of guest musicians, introspective songwriting, and solid choice in covers, Somewhere South of Crazy might be the reigning IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year’s strongest release to date. Bradley’s velvety voice take listeners on a journey: from the Bluegrass State on songs like “Leaving Kentucky” and “Old Southern Porches” to the beach, with the title track (co-written by Pam Tillis, who also contributes harmony vocals) and a grassy cover of Seals & Crofts’ ’70s hit “Summer Breeze” that rocks, softly. Read Blake Boldt’s interview with Bradley here.
This collection of classics, recorded at Jack White’s Third Man Studios, contains enough energy to power Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Guitarist Michael Daves vibrates with punkish fervor, while Thile plays the musical straight man, picking his mandolin with razor-sharp efficiency and providing more restrained vocals on ballads like “Bury Me Beneath the Willow.” The pair sounds as though they’re having a blast singing these songs, and we had a blast listening to them.
The supergroup made a triumphant return this year with their first album since 2004’s Lonely Runs Both Ways. Despite the long gap between albums, the band hasn’t missed a beat: Krauss’ voice is once more ethereal on breathtaking covers of Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” and Jackson Browne’s “My Opening Farewell,” while Dan Tyminski shows off his robust vocals with Peter Rowan’s “Dust Bowl Children.” Let’s hope the next AKUS album comes a lot quicker than 2018.
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