Best of Bluegrass (And Its Offshoots)

Staff | December 27th, 2013

Four writers, four different definitions of bluegrass. Geographical separation made it impossible to settle the issue via cage fight, so instead we cast separate ballots for our favorite albums and let the votes fall where they may. Whether you’re a traditionalist, a fan of progressive bluegrass, or somewhere in between, there’s something here for everyone – and you might find a new record to enjoy. Stay tuned for our Best Country and Americana countdown next week.

Honorable Mentions: Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road – Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road; Junior Sisk & Joe Mullins – Hall of Fame Bluegrass; Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen – On the Edge; The Roys – Gypsy Runaway Train; James King – Three Chords & The Truth; Alan Bibey & Wayne Benson – The Mandolin Chronicles; Darin & Brooke Aldridge – Flying; Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out – Timeless Hits from the Past Bluegrassed

deadlygentlemen25. The Deadly Gentlemen — Roll Me, Tumble Me

These guys are clearly having gobs of fun, but don’t let that distract you from their serious musical chops and heavy-duty intellect. The Gentlemen rein things in with more structure and melody on their third album while retaining a progressive, experimental bent. The result is a very listenable collection of songs that still largely defy description. We won’t let that stop us from trying. “Bored of the Raging” is worth the embarrassment when another driver notices you singing along and the title track is essentially a poem that could be rapped if it wasn’t being performed by a progressive bluegrass band. “All The Broken Pieces” is a catchy anthem of optimism. Roll Me, Tumble Me succeeds as a whole by capturing the good-time charm of a Deadly Gentlemen live performance. –Paul Wallen

 

boxcarsjustaroad24. Boxcars – It’s Just a Road

When an album kicks off with a straight-ahead and deftly picked version of Jerry Reed’s “You Took All the Ramblin’ Out of Me”—down to Reed’s characteristic “Son!” at the end of the song—you know you’re in bluegrass heaven. The Boxcars stand up and deliver an album full of outstanding harmonies woven around rousing instrumental work. The Boxcars’ version of the Carter Family’s “I’m Leaving You This Lonesome Song” features call-and-response vocals on top of skittering and capering banjo, mandolin, and fiddle work; the rousing title track is traditional bluegrass at its best and illustrates the reasons why it’s so good to have the Boxcars guiding us down this road. –Henry Carrigan

 

donrigsby23. Don Rigsby – Doctor’s Orders: A Tribute to Ralph Stanley

If you’re ailing and seeking some solace, Don Rigsby’s tribute to Ralph Stanley is indeed just what the doctor ordered. Many of the songs are deep tracks from Stanley’s catalog, but a few—like “Little Maggie”—are standards; Stanley himself shares lead vocals on “The Daughter of Geronimo” and “Home in the Mountains,” and Rigsby gathers a number of other musicians, from Larry Sparks to Charlie Sizemore, among others, for the salute of appreciation to Stanley. Stanley’s music is medicine for the soul, and Rigsby delivers a healthy dose of it here. –HC

 

juniorsiskstory22. Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice – The Story of the Day That I Died

The Story of the Day That I Died engineered a good deal of controversy in 2013 with “Old Bicycle Chain,” a song some took as an endorsement of domestic violence. Aside from that, this is a fine traditional bluegrass album. Sisk, the reigning IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year, and his band chose some excellent material both old and new to record here: the title track, penned by Ashby Frank (one of the minds behind “Mountain Twerker”) is a fun song about a man who fakes his own death in order to escape a cheating wife and inevitable messy divorce, while rip-roaring instrumental “Jesse James” shows off the gang’s formidable picking. –Juli Thanki

 

ronblockwalkingsong21. Ron Block – Walking Song

You may know Block for his celebrated banjo and guitar work with Alison Krauss and Union Station. You may know him from two previous solo albums. You certainly know some of the musicians and vocalists featured on this new release, such as Mike Compton, Stuart Duncan and Kate Rusby, to name just a few. Walking Song is a thoughtful collaboration with poet Rebecca Reynolds that began with theological discussions in an online forum. We get to know a more relaxed side of Block as a singer and songwriter on these 11 songs, which include warm and delicate ballads, bluegrass, newgrass and Appalachian fiddle tunes. –PW

 

grascalspay

20. Grascals – When I Get My Pay

This late contender didn’t come out until November, but it made up for lost time. It’s notable for having Kristin Scott Benson making her lead vocal debut on “Are You Up For Getting Down Tonight” and self-proclaimed Grascals fan Dierks Bentley singing on “American Pickers.” It is worth noting that three of the songs, “(Two Boys on A) Dirt Road,” “(When Your) Rock Turns to Stone” and “It Won’t Break My Heart,” were written or co-written by the late, great Harley Allen. –Ken Morton, Jr.

 

daileyvincentbrothers19. Dailey and Vincent – Brothers of the Highway

Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent’s beautiful vocal blend is no secret to the bluegrass world where, they have garnered over a dozen IBMA awards in the last few years. Brothers of the Highway adds to that legacy. They pen some of the tracks themselves, but put their own stamp on some familiar ones from the likes of The Louvin Brothers, Vince Gill, and the Father of Bluegrass himself, Bill Monroe. The duo absolutely kills it on “The Hills of Caroline,” a jaw-dropping combination of instrumentation, harmony, and lyrics. –KMJ

 

noampikelnyplayskennybaker18. Noam Pikelny – Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe

The album title Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe may have started off as a joke (to get that story, check out Juli Thanki’s interview of Noam Pikelny here), but this tribute record is seriously good. Banjo virtuoso Pikelny recreates Baker’s legendary fiddle playing note-for-note on the five-string, while bluegrass all-stars Ronnie McCoury, Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, and Mike Bub provide impeccable support. –JT

 

johndriskellhopkins17. John Driskell Hopkins & Balsam Range – Daylight

Zac Brown Band bassist John Driskell Hopkins takes his own turn in the spotlight on Daylight. Backed by Balsam Range and supported by a number of guests including Brown, Tony Trischka, Jerry Douglas, and Joey Martin Feek, Hopkins takes listeners on a wild ride, from the opening notes of “Runaway Train” — which begins with Douglas’s dobro, followed by train-whistle-esque howls — to intricate instrumental closer “Shady Bald Breakdown.” In the middle, there’s some gospel, a little bit of swing, and a dash of bluegrass-rock, too. Let’s hope this partnership isn’t just a one-off. –JT

 

doylelawsonroads16. Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver – Roads Well Traveled

Bluegrass sage Doyle Lawson shows the young bucks how it is done on this fantastic combination of outstanding vocal harmonies and stunning musicianship. Bluegrass still runs strong, but it’s the flirtation with a country sound on “How Do You Say Goodbye to 60 Years?” and “When Love Is All You Want (It’s All You Need)” that helps this album stand out. –KMJ

 

peterrowanoldschool15. Peter Rowan – The Old School

Former Blue Grass Boy Rowan calls the old school a “big school…where the tributaries of the river meet.” On this remarkable album, Rowan gathers members of the every school of bluegrass, young and old, to celebrate the diversity of bluegrass music and to explore the many colorful threads that weave through the bluegrass tapestry. Del McCoury lends his high lonesome tenor on “That’s All She Wrote,” and the driving title track features Jesse McReynolds as well as the Traveling McCourys and Michael Cleveland. Rowan’s tribute to the late Watson, “Doc Watson Morning,” features Bryan Sutton’s rousing picking, and the blues-inflected “Ragged Old Dream” would be at home on an Old and in the Way album. This is a glorious album that captures the richness of bluegrass. –HC

 

steveedie14. Steve Martin & Edie Brickell – Love Has Come for You

Twenty years ago, the idea of an album by funny guy Steve Martin and the lead singer of alternative band Edie & The New Bohemians would have sounded absurd. It turns out, though, that the two have formed a vibrant creative partnership, resulting in a sophisticated, genre-melding (Popgrass? Acousticana?) album anchored by Martin’s evocative banjo – he plays both clawhammer and Scruggs-style — and Brickell’s lyrics. Highlights include the folksy “Get Along, Stray Dog,” delightful story-song “Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby” and the instrumental backing provided by the always solid Steep Canyon Rangers. –JT

 

bankesterslove13. The Bankesters – Love Has Wheels

This is the third consecutive year that The Bankesters have appeared on our “Best of Bluegrass” list. On Love Has Wheels, the family band’s Compass Records debut (though the label re-released the band’s 2012 album Looking Forward), is their most mature and well-rounded record to date. The sisterly harmonies of Melissa Triplett, Emily, and Alysha Bankester are as sweet as ever, and Kyle Triplett’s banjo sounds the best it ever has. Song selection has always been one of The Bankesters’ strengths, and Love Has Wheels is brimming with quality material: patriarch Phil takes lead vocals on “She’s a Stranger,” a poignant Mark Brinkman song about the ravages of Alzheimer’s, while their version of “When I’m Gone” is playful, poppy fun. “Time and Love,” written by Kyle and Melissa, proves that there are some solid songwriting chops within the band as well. –JT

 

chrisjonesnightdrivers12. Chris Jones & The Night Drivers – Lonely Comes Easy

You just know you are in good hands from the moment Jones’ mellow baritone voice eases you into this album singing, “If that was love, I guess I missed it/Somewhere between our first kiss and our last goodbye.” On their first release of all-new material since 2009’s Cloud of Dust, Jones & The Night Drivers prove that patience is a virtue with 13 tracks that range from the easygoing and contagious “Where I Am” to frenetic instrumental “Don’t Blink” and a beautifully sparse cover of Doc Watson’s “Wake Up, Little Maggie.” With fantastic playing, intriguing song selection and an array of big-name guest appearances, Lonely Comes Easy is enough to please even the finickiest bluegrass fan. –PW

(Read Henry Carrigan’s interview of Chris Jones here.)

 

rickybruce11. Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby – Cluck Ol’ Hen

Iconic bluegrass musician and improvisational artist best known for mid-‘80s pop hits recording a live album in front of a concert audience? What could possibly go wrong? Not much, as it turns out. Recorded in Omaha, Neb., during the final show of a 2007 tour in support of their first self-titled collaborative album, the duo’s unscripted banter between these 12 songs is as much fun as the music. And the music is, at times, mind-blowing. For example, the 10+ minute improvisational jam version of Hornsby’s “The Way It Is.” Whether they are paying tribute to Bill Monroe on “Bluegrass Breakdown,” showing a softer side on the old folk ballad “Darling Corey” or tinkering with tradition on the title track, this spirited romp by two masters of their crafts is not to be overlooked. –PW

(Read Henry Carrigan’s interview with Ricky Skaggs here.)

 

alanjacksonbluegrassalbum10. Alan Jackson – The Bluegrass Album

The Bluegrass Album’s plain album art and no-nonsense title are as straightforward as Alan Jackson himself; there are no frills on his first – and hopefully not last – bluegrass record, just damn good music. Bluegrass suits Jackson: he wrote a number of strong songs for this project (“Appalachian Mountain Girl” and “Blacktop” are two highlights), chose excellent material to cover (The Dillards’ “There Is a Time,” and Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky”) and surrounded himself with all-star talent like Rob Ickes, Ronnie Bowman, Adam Steffey, and Tim Crouch. Jackson’s typically laidback delivery makes this record feel as comfortable as a favorite pair of boots. –JT

 

rebeccafrazierwhenwefall9. Rebecca Frazier – When We Fall

This thunderbolt of simplicity reminds us how powerful music can be when you focus on, well, the music. Frazier confidently avoids frills and fuss, allowing us to bask in shining vocals, crisp, inventive instrumentation and intelligent songwriting. Nearly all of the 12 songs on When We Fall are originals, but Frazier — widely known from a decade with bluegrass band Hit & Run — opens her solo debut with a revealing cover of Neil Young’s “Human Highway.” “Better Than Staying,” “When We Fall,” “Love, Go Away From This House” and “Darken Your Doorway” pack more than enough hook to knock down genre barriers. –PW

 

donnaroots8. Donna Ulisse – Showin’ My Roots

This has been a busy year for Donna Ulisse; earlier in the year she released Child of God, an album of gospel songs. On her newest album, Showin’ My Roots, Ulisse honors the men and women whose music and writing are so much a part of what has created her. In the album’s title track, co-written with husband Rick Stanley, Ulisse proclaims in her warm and supple voice that Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard, Bonnie Owens, and others’ “singin’ and writin’ lit a fire in me,” and her golden throat wraps its beauty around songs ranging from “Fist City” to “How Mountain Girls Can Love” to “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On” on this album of loving tributes. –HC

 

timdarrell7. Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott – Memories and Moments

All but three of the tracks on Memories and Moments were penned by O’Brien and Scott, talented songwriters with impeccable catalogs. The only covers were written by luminaries George Jones, Hank Williams, and John Prine (who appears on “Paradise”). The project is the quintessential roots album and it even earned this duo a Best American Roots Song Grammy nomination for “Keep Your Dirty Lights On.” —KMJ

 

clairelynchdearsister6. Claire Lynch – Dear Sister

Lynch’s crystalline, shimmering voice is the most powerful instrument on this album of gorgeous, emotionally vibrant, and soulfully resonant music. The title track, co-written, with Louisa Branscomb, and based on Civil War letters from one of Branscomb’s relatives, pulls at the heartstrings as Lynch sweetly and crisply sings a mournful tale of love, loss, and yearning. Lynch and her band gallop swiftly through the Osborne Brothers’ classic “I’ll Be Alright Tomorrow,” while on the calypso-inflected “That Kind of Love,” Lynch’s vocals combine the best elements of Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith’s voices. This lush and emotionally rich album is Lynch’s best yet. –HC

 

steepcanyon5. Steep Canyon Rangers – Tell the Ones I Love

Steve who? Just in case anyone forgot, Tell the Ones I Love is a musical two-by-four over the head of a reminder that Steep Canyon Rangers are a force, with or without a wild and crazy guy. The Rangers continue pushing their sound forward, employing drums on several tracks and unabashedly mixing in country, pop and folk influences. The title track, an irresistible update on traditional train tunes, opens an album of 12 original songs. “Camelia” is a playful come-hither love song with a country groove, “Hunger” has hints of gospel and “Las Vegas” would not be out of place in a mobster movie. Other parts of the record fall more in keeping with their previous bluegrass-oriented work. As you’d expect from a Steep Canyon Rangers album, lush harmonies and expert instrumentation bring it all together. –PW

 

gibsonbrothersmusic4. Gibson Brothers – They Called It Music

With this record, The Gibson Brothers show why they’ve won IBMA’s Entertainer of the Year Award two years running (by the way, if you haven’t checked out one of their enthralling live shows, it’s long past time to do so). Eric Gibson’s songwriting is the best it’s ever been, with songs like the title track, written with Joe Newberry, and “Dusty Old World.” Well-chosen covers like “Home on the River” and Mark Knopfler’s “Daddy’s Gone to Knoxville” round out a fantastic album from a band that just keeps getting better, both in the studio and on stage. –JT

 

steeldrivershammer3. SteelDrivers – Hammer Down

Those concerned about the loss of lead singer Chris Stapleton had all fears put to rest when Gary Nichols stepped in and delivered the same throaty and passionate delivery that sets The SteelDrivers apart from nearly every bluegrass band out there. Murder and mayhem make up the foundation for a terrific third album that fills out with a little broader instrumentation than the first two. The dark highlight for these ears is a wife confronting her cheating husband with the barrel of a .45 on “When You Don’t Come Home.” –KMJ

 

delbaltimore2. Del McCoury Band – Streets of Baltimore

Perhaps one year the Del McCoury Band will release a subpar album. But 2013 is not that year. Del’s high lonesome voice is in fine form here, weaving through a playful version of “Once More with Feeling” and brimming with hurt on the classic title track.  Of special note is “Butler Brothers,” a heart-twisting Civil War tale (penned by Donna Ulisse and Jerry Salley) of brothers on opposite sides of the battle lines and the mother who waits for her boys to return safely (spoiler alert: they don’t). –JT

 

dellamaeoft1. Della Mae – This World Oft Can Be

With soaring harmonies, lilting vocals, deft songwriting, and finely-honed instrumental gifts, Della Mae weaves folk, blues, and jazz into traditional bluegrass rhythms, taking bluegrass to new and dizzying heights. Playing John Hartford’s fiddle, Kimberly Ludiker reels off the opening hoedown of “I Got a Letter from Down the Road,” while Ludiker’s fiddle and Jenni Lyn Gardner’s mandolin scamper off into bluegrass heaven on “Heaven’s Gate.” Della Mae weaves blues into the slow mountain porch rhythms on “Ain’t No Ash Will Burn,” and Kathy Mattea meets Joni Mitchell in Celia Woodsmith’s songwriting on “Empire.” The searing emotions of the group’s lyrics and the transcendent strains of Della Mae’s music linger in the heart and soul longer after the last groove of the album fades. –HC

 

  1. BRUCE
    December 29, 2013 at 5:04 pm

    “Four writers, four different definitions of bluegrass.” Ah, musical journalism at its best, or otherwise.

    Seriously, this is the beauty of bluegrass as compared to whatever the hell country music is today.

    Traditional, progressive, or somewhere in-between. Whatever the range, it is still decidedly BLUEGRASS. It reverts to the mean. Yes there are variations but yet a continuity to the ever-expanding genre. Several different types of trains but all on the same track.

    For the current slop called modern country music, I liken that to driving a train across the ocean using a propeller. Or skippering a boat on CSX Railway tracks. It looks decidedly foolish.

    The bluegrass references on this site are to be commended and I’m sure the exposure is appreciated by the artists and fans.

  2. Rick
    December 31, 2013 at 6:36 pm

    Yawn. Well, I agree about the inclusion of the Gibson Brothers album but don’t much care about most of the rest of the artists and albums listed. Placing Della Mae in the # 1 slot was good for a hearty laugh though. I hope the youngun’s in Flatt Lonesome are working on a new album so I’ll have something to look forward to…

  3. Barry Mazor
    December 31, 2013 at 8:11 pm

    Old farts yawn a lot.

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