Best of Bluegrass 2012
2012 was a good year for both traditional and progressive bluegrass. Here are a few of our favorite releases from the past twelve months. What were yours?
These albums barely missed our Top 20: Trampled By Turtles, Stars and Satellites; Keller Williams & The Travelin’ McCourys, Pick; Janie Fricke, Country Side of Bluegrass; MilkDrive, Waves; Steel Wheels, Lay Down, Lay Low.
20. Town Mountain – Leave the Bottle
Town Mountain, part of Ashville’s rich music scene, have released a fine follow-up to last year’s Steady Operator. Phil Barker’s “Lawdog” sounds like an unearthed classic, and the group’s tight harmonies alone make this record a treat for any bluegrass fan. This is one up and coming band you’ll want to keep an eye on in 2013 and beyond. –Juli Thanki
19. Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie – The Touch of Time
DC bluegrass legend Bill Emerson is one of the finest banjo players out there, and he delivers on this album, supported by a crack band and excellent material, including “Home Sweet Dixie Home:” featuring guest Bill Evans, it’s one of the best instrumentals of the year. Bassist Teri Chism delivers a sweetly sung cover of Dolly Parton’s “You’re the Highlight of My Life,” and her take on a grassed-up “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train” is a lot of fun. But it’s the heartbreakers that really make The Touch of Time, especially “Today I Turned Your Picture to the Wall” and the smart cover of “Love Gone Cold.” –JT
18. The HillBenders – Can You Hear Me?
The HillBenders draw upon numerous musical influences on their second album, and put their own spin on a pair of fantastic covers–a delightful version of The Romantics’ New Wave hit “Talking in Your Sleep,” and Hal Ketchum’s “Past the Point of Rescue”—with the unbridled energy of their raucous live performances. Originals like “Broken Promises” and instrumental “Gettysburg” show off serious songwriting, composing, and picking chops, but there isn’t a bad track on the record. –JT
17. The Coal Porters – Find the One
The eighth album from this London-based “alternative bluegrass band” (so described on this record by the BBC’s Brian Matthew) is their strongest release in several years. Frontman Sid Griffin shares lead vocal duties with Carly Frey, who impresses on the heartbreaker “Red-Eyed and Blue.” “Hush U Babe/Burnham Thorpe,” a story song about runaway slaves on their journey North, is one of the record’s most thrilling moments, as is a driving, grassy cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black.” –JT
16. Special Consensus – Scratch Gravel Road
Greg Cahill’s Special Consensus may be just a couple years from celebrating its 40th birthday, but the four-man group still sounds fresh and vibrant thanks to skillful picking and the band’s three singers who trade lead vocalist duties. The band’s excellent song choices, a fine cover of “Sea of Heartbreak” and fiery instrumentals like “Jacklene” (featuring Alison Brown) made this Grammy-nominated release one of our favorite bluegrass records of the year. –JT
15. Bill Evans – In Good Company
Armed with his trusty five-string, Bill Evans can masterfully pick any style of music, whether it’s a traditional song, like “Follow the Drinking Gourd” or a cover ofJohn Martyn’s “Walk to the Water” (joined by The Infamous Stringdusters). The four instrumental Beatles covers on this record—“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” and “Mother Nature’s Son”—are especially lovely, as is “On and On,” with guests Joy Kills Sorrow. –JT
14. Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers – They’re Playing My Song
They’re Playing My Song came out just a few months ago, but this traditional bluegrass band sounds timeless. A cappella gospel song “Moses, Set My People Free” is a lovely display of the group’s four-part harmony singing, and they’re not slouches in the picking department either, as Mullins burns up his five-string with a version of “Steel Guitar Rag.” Covers of Osborne Brothers and Delmore Brothers songs as well as a live version of “Katy Daley” round out this album from IBMA’s reigning Emerging Artists of the Year. –JT
13. The Brothers Comatose – Respect the Van
Comatose? Hardly. This release from the scrappy Bay Area band is full of infectious tunes sung with punk rock fervor–a sound that’s reminiscent of groups like Split Lip Rayfield. But there’s more to the Brothers than sweaty, frenzied string band music. “Morning Time,” a duet between Ben Morrison and Nicki Bluhm, is a sweet, folky number that stands out among handclapping footstompers like “Modern Day Sinners.” –JT
12. Dailey & Vincent – The Gospel Side of Dailey & Vincent
Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent took a break from accepting all those IBMA and SPBGMA awards to release this gospel project exclusively though Cracker Barrel. It’s a combination of old spirituals, heaven-raising mountain-music that highlights their perfect vocal harmonies. and incredible musicianship. They pay homage to many a traditional cover, but the highlights are two originals: “Living in the Kingdom of God” and “Until at Last I’m Home.” –Ken Morton, Jr.
11. The Roys – New Day Dawning
The Roys once more showcase their sweet sibling harmonies in this seven song follow-up to last year’s Lonesome Whistle. With well-written songs like the uplifting title track and “Grandpa’s Barn,” a moving ballad about the legacy one beloved man left behind, and a lineup of musicians that includes Andy Leftwich (fiddle, mandolin) and Randy Kohrs (Dobro), New Day Dawning is a record that gets better with each listen. –JT
10. Jim Lauderdale – Carolina Moonrise: Bluegrass Songs by Robert Hunter and Jim Lauderdale
Carolina Moonrise is a collection of fantastic lyrics brimming with humor and heartbreak set to driving bluegrass arrangements that ring in listeners’ ears long after the final notes fade out. Backed by an A-List band that includes Tim Crouch and Josh Williams, Lauderdale pays tribute to the greats (“Fiddler’s Heaven”), dives headfirst into hurts-so-good relationships (“Iodine”), and mourns love that’s slowly dying (“On the Level”). This is another for Lauderdale and partner Robert Hunter’s win column. Lauderdale Read Henry Carrigan’s review of the album here. –JT
9. Ricky Skaggs – Music to My Ears
Ricky Skaggs’ newest record incorporated a number of influences from bluegrass (the playful “You Can’t Hurt Ham”) to Celtic music and pop (“Soldier’s Son,” which features vocals by one of its writers, Barry Gibb). Skaggs can play just about anything with strings, and on this record, he does; however, the album’s most moving moment is perhaps its simplest: an unadorned, flatpicked version of “Tennessee Stud” in honor of the late Doc Watson. –JT
8. Infamous Stringdusters – Silver Sky
Produced with Billy Hume, who’s worked on records for everyone from singer-songwriter Josh Ritter to rapper Ludacris, Silver Sky is another strong link in the Stringdusters’ ever-growing chain of smart, sophisticated bluegrass records. Covers of The Grateful Dead’s “He’s Gone” and The Police’s “Walking on the Moon” supplement excellent originals (“Rockets,” which features fantastic Dobro and fiddle from Andy Hall and Jeremy Garrett, respectively, is a highlight, as is “The Hitchhiker,” which zooms along with tight harmonies and Chris Pandolfi’s speedy banjo picking) and intricate instrumentals like “Heady Festy.” –JT
7. Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver – Sing Me a Song About Jesus
Because Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver’s live shows are as much spiritual revivals as they are intense bluegrass jams, it is no surprise that their faith would be celebrated in this (and several other) fine gospel album. The members of this seven-piece band are each incredible musicians in their own right, but on this album, it’s the harmonies that stand out. “The Greatest Creator” and “Going On Home” are a pair of a cappella songs that showcase powerful and tight group vocals that stop you in your tracks. –KMJ
6. Steep Canyon Rangers – Nobody Knows You
This North Carolina quintet just keeps getting better. Nobody Knows You is their best effort to date. “Knob Creek,” an intricate instrumental, shows off the band’s bluegrass skills, especially the fiddling of Nicky Sanders, while “Natural Disater,” sung by Woody Platt’s smooth baritone, is a stellar ballad with a catchy, folk-pop hook. Graham Sharp, the band’s banjo player, is a fine songwriting talent, too: the hardscrabble tale of familial dysfunction, “Ungrateful One,” and toetapper “Long Shot” are two of the record’s best moments. –JT
5. The Bankesters – Looking Forward
This is the second consecutive year The Bankesters have appeared on our Best of Bluegrass countdown. The family band’s delivered a fine follow-up to last year’s self-titled record. The angelic harmonies of sisters Melissa Triplett, Emily, and Alysha are showcased in a cappella tune “Desert Lullaby,” while their parents, Phil and Dorene, share lead vocals on the swingin’ duet “Where I Am.”
4. Punch Brothers – Who’s Feeling Young Now?
Radiohead meets bluegrass in this sonically rich, musically inventive and far-reaching album that features fine string-band playing cased in a broad Americana sensibility that’s not afraid to explore every sound that banjo, fiddle, guitar, bass, and mandolin possess. The opening track “Movement and Location” resembles the experimental compositions of Philip Glass or Steven Reich and kicks off the album by showing off each band member’s musical virtuosity. After the Celtic-tinged “Flippen (The Flip)”, the band takes off momentarily in a traditional bluegrass direction, and then skitters off to give the string-band treatment to Radiohead’s “Kid A.” Ingenious lyrics and brilliant composing carry along this original, exuberant, and entertaining effort. –Henry Carrigan
3. Rhonda Vincent – Sunday Mornin’ Singin’ Live
Quite simply, this is a gorgeous, lush, evocative, moving, hand-clapping, and stunning gospel album by one of the best bluegrass musicians performing today. Gospel music is all about coming home, whether to a spiritual home or to a physical homeplace, so Vincent returns to her hometown of Greentop, Missouri, to perform and record these songs live at the Greentop Methodist Church. From driving, flat-out bluegrass tunes such as “Joshua” to the poignant “Prettiest Flower” to haunting performance of gospel standards, “Just As I Am” and “The Old Rugged Cross,” Vincent and her band brings tears to our eyes, get us stomping along with joy, and carry us home. –HC
2. Jerry Douglas – Traveler
Recorded in four different cities—New Orleans, Nashville, New York, and Banbury, UK—Traveler is as much a product of location as it is Douglas’ superlative musicianship and myriad influences. Douglas’ expressive, intricate Dobro work is a voice all its own on tracks like “Gone to Fortingall” and “King Silkie,” and we get to hear his own vocals on his version of “On a Monday.” A loose, bluesy cover of “High Blood Pressure,” featuring Keb’ Mo’, and a stirring take on “The Boxer,” with guest stars Paul Simon and Mumford & Sons round out another one of Douglas’ stellar albums. –JT
1. Tim O’Brien & Darrell Scott – We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This
Recorded in two separate concerts at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, N.C. to benefit the Arthur Morgan School, Scott and O’Brien deliver a rousing album full of straight-ahead, fast-driving bluegrass. Ranging over Celtic ballads (“Mick Ryan’s Lament”), a romping, stomping version of Scott’s “Long Time Gone,” piercing covers of Hank Williams’ “House of Gold,” and Lefty Frizzell’s “Mom and Dad’s Waltz,” and closing out with an a cappella “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”, the duo supplies such an abundance of rollicking good time music that it’s hard to imagine that they’d ever be better than this. –HC
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