As you may be aware, I am involved with the Red Deer and Central Alberta bluegrass organization, Waskasoo Bluegrass Music Society. We’ve been around for ten years and encourage, promote, and showcase bluegrass music in the area. We have a newsletter called That High Lonesome Sound, and several years back I started a column called Donald’s Bluegrass Shelf to showcase reviews of bluegrass recordings that I think are worthwhile.
This past month, I’ve been putting together an article about places to start listening to bluegrass. We are far from the bluegrass heartland, and Carter Stanley, Don Reno, and Hazel Dickens are not household names. Most of our members and friends are experiencing bluegrass in a very different manner than those who were raised on the music. I sometimes get asked, “Donald, what is a great bluegrass album to start with?” With input from folks on the BGRASS-L and Postcard2, I’ve put together a list of albums to help folks who are interested in starting an exploration into the music.
In the new edition of THLS, I share some of my initial recommendations.
When you’re just starting out with bluegrass recordings, guidance is helpful. Here is a selection of CDs that may help you mind your way through the various streams and rivers that make up the bluegrass waterway. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list of the ‘best’ or most influential bluegrass albums ever recorded. It is intended as one person’s opinion as to where you might start listening.
All but one of the albums are in print and relatively easy to locate; online retailers are likely the best bet for acquiring the music. Unfortunately, because of the foibles of the record business, some essential bluegrass recordings from the likes of The Osborne Brothers, Reno & Smiley, Bill Monroe and others are not readily available. All retail links are provided only as a guide and no endorsement is implied or stated.
I don’t pretend to be a bluegrass expert, but I have been fortunate to listen to more bluegrass than most folks over the past fifteen or so years. These recommendations are based on my listening and on the suggestions of others. By no means is it definitive, and you’ll notice instrumental albums are under-represented. As they say, your mileage may vary.
First up, the most affordable and expansive single-label, bluegrass compilation I’ve run across- Hand-Picked: Twenty-Five Years of Rounder Bluegrass. Since Rounder is currently celebrating its fortieth anniversary, this two-disc collection is obviously dated, but the music isn’t. The Rounder essentials are represented- J.D. Crowe, Alison Krauss, Tony Rice, Lynn Morris, Johnson Mountain Boys, Dry Branch Fire Squad- but it is with the less familiar artists- Hazel Dickens, James King, Joe Val, Ted Lundy, Bill Keith- that true treasures are revealed. The liner notes are informative. This set retails for less than $8 and can usually be found at HMV stores. Other Rounder compilations to consider: O Sister! The Women’s Bluegrass Collection and O Sister! 2, Bluegrass Number 1’s, True Bluegrass, and the essential coalmining collection Harlan County USA: Songs of the Coal Miner’s Struggle.
Here are additional suggestions to help you navigate your bluegrass journey, starting with some of The Classics:
Bill Monroe- Anthology (Universal, 2003) In my research, I found that this great two-disc set of 50 Monroe tracks appears to be out-of-print. Dang, because there isn’t another serviceable overview of The Father of Bluegrass available. The single-disc Definitive Collection (MCA, 2005) certainly isn’t but will do in a pinch, I suppose. There are a few European collections of early works that are okay, but the best ‘other’ place to start would be with the Bear Family box sets which are incredible in quality and presentation. But they’ll set you back a hundred bucks or more.
Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys- Can’t You Hear the Mountains Calling (Rounder, 2009- recorded 1981) A reissue of the 1986 cassette 16 Years, this set- recorded in a day- features a powerful lineup of CMBs fronted by Charlie Sizemore.
The Country Gentlemen- Sing and Play Folk Songs & Bluegrass (Folkways, 1961-reissued Smithsonian Folkways, 1991) Only a few years ago, you easily located material from the classic years of The Country Gentlemen. Now, an Amazon.ca search reveals little available. eMusic and iTunes have several of their recordings for download including this release. The vocal trios contained herein are especially impressive, and Charlie Waller’s leads were seldom stronger. This disc- and many other exceptional bluegrass releases- are available directly from the label at http://www.folkways.si.edu/
The Seldom Scene- Live at the Cellar Door (Rebel Records, 1975) It is a testament to how far bluegrass has come that this progressive album from the mid-70s now seems positively quaint and- to many- even traditional. Featuring the classic lineup of Duffey, Starling, Auldridge, Eldridge, and Gray, this combo took bluegrass to levels not previously experienced. Also recommended are any of the Act albums. For the more contemporary Seldom Scene lineup, Scene it All (Sugar Hill, 2000) is tough to beat.
Flatt & Scruggs- The Complete Mercury Recordings (Universal, 2003) One has to be careful when purchasing Flatt & Scruggs compilations as several sketchy sets are found on shelves. This single disc album is comprised of the sides recorded by the duo in 1948-1950, just after leaving the Blue Grass Boys. Mac Wiseman handles some vocals as does Curly Seckler, but it is Lester and Earl that you are trying to learn about here. This is an excellent place to start.
More suggestions next time…and thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee, Donald