Last week I posted the list of my favourite roots albums of 2014, while also including a few other lists including favourite reissues and such.
Today I am pleased to present my favourite bluegrass albums of the past year. A great many strong bluegrass albums were released in 2014, but I found that I spent more time listening to non-bluegrass roots music over the past months. One example, of the 30 most played songs on the 2014 Bluegrass Today chart, I haven’t knowingly heard a full third, and couldn’t hum another third. I just wasn’t listening to bluegrass- in a broad manner- as much as I may have in previous years.
Part of the reason for that can be attributed to the writing assignments I was given, but that isn’t the whole story. In retrospect, I think I overloaded on bluegrass and reached a bit of a saturation point sometime in 2012. As such I didn’t listen to bluegrass perhaps as often this year, giving albums only two or three pleasure listens after purchase, and then setting them aside; of course, albums I wrote about would receive much more attention- anywhere from five to a dozen plays- and then be put on the shelf. Another factor is that there appears to be more commonality in sound between bands than I’ve previously noticed; fewer songs and bands are hitting me upside the head.
As the year closes, I find that I am more excited about bluegrass again, and have returned to several of these recordings. There is nothing that compares to a great bluegrass band at the top of their game, performing fresh music that is exciting and memorable.
I really enjoyed the following albums and I’m certain any fan of bluegrass, acoustiblue, and acoustic roots music should find much to follow-up on with the artists and albums I am sharing today. Of course, not every one of these albums will meet each reader’s definition of bluegrass.
- Nick Hornbuckle 12X2(=/-1) (Corvus Bay) Nick Hornbuckle’s debut solo recording was a collection of mostly traditional old-time fiddle tunes given new arrangements for banjo in a variety of (mostly) duo settings. As a long-time proponent of the special music created by John Reischman & the Jaybirds, with whom Hornbuckle has played for some 15+ years, it should be no surprise to anyone that I can’t get enough of this recording. Not truly a bluegrass recording, it certainly fits into my catch-all acoustiblue category- certainly bluegrass friendly with an emphasis on approaching old-time tunes in a new way.
The album features twelve tunes interpreted by Hornbuckle and a small group of colleagues- John Reischman is in for three pieces. The other musicians- Miriam Sonstenese (fiddle), Emma Beaton (cello), Shanti Bremer (banjo), and Marisha Devoin (bass)- weren’t previously known to me, but their contributions, along with Hornbuckle’s vision, create an album that is truly unlike anything I’ve encountered anytime recently. My full review is available here: http://www.countrystandardtime.com/blog/FervorCouleeBluegrass/entry.asp?xid=1014
- Laurie Lewis & Kathy Kallick Sing the Songs of Vern and Ray (Spruce and Maple Music) Possibly no two individuals have more confidently and consistently beat the drum for Vern & Ray than Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis. Themselves leading denizens of the California bluegrass scene, Lewis and Kallick frequently pay tribute to Vern & Ray and their ongoing influence in concert. They come together here for their second album of duets (following 1991’s Together which was dedicated to Vern & Ray) by releasing a wonderfully touching and musically significant tribute to the duo that so impacted them. My full review is here: http://lonesomeroadreview.com/3125/
- Ralph Stanley & Ralph Stanley II- Side By Side (Rebel Records) Eighty-seven years is a long time to live. To be recording at that age is highly unusual, but that is what we find today when we consider Ralph Stanley.
Recorded in 2013 (so more accurately 86 years old as a recording artist), Side By Side is a duet album by Stanley and his son, Ralph Stanley II that represents the first time the two have stood, well, side by side in the studio as equals rather than as ‘boss’ and Clinch Mountain Boy. My full review is available here: http://lonesomeroadreview.com/side-by-side-by-ralph-stanley-ralph-stanley-ii/
- Larry Sparks- Lonesome and Then Some: A Classic 50th Celebration(Rebel Records) Over fifty years as a bluegrass professional, Larry Sparks has honed a full-bodied, soulful approach to singing bluegrass. He has a wonderful right hand, maintaining unbreakable rhythm while contributing leads that lend a bluesy country resonance to his songs. With calm assurance that has been mistaken for standoffishness, Sparks is a gentlemanly ambassador for bluegrass.
As was the case a decade ago with 40, on this new set Sparks has teamed with some of the most talented musicians and singers in bluegrass to celebrate his 50th year in the music. As special as that collection was- and it was justifiably awarded the IBMA’s Album of the Year in 2005- this set is even more satisfying. My full review can be found here: https://fervorcoulee.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/larry-sparks-lonesome-and-then-some-a-classic-50th-celebration-review/
- The Bluegrass Brothers- Generations (Mountain Fever) I first encountered this group a decade or so back with an album on Hay Holler and followed up with their next couple releases. After those first three albums, I lost track of the group, but Generations is the strongest of the four albums I own. A traditional sounding group, the Dowdy clan knows how to keep their bluegrass sound straight and pure. Nothing fancy, just good songs, bright picking, and rough-hewn vocals that are ideal for their approach to bluegrass. http://www.thebluegrassbrothers.com/
- Balsam Range- Five (Mountain Home) There exists a palatable line separating premier, contemporary bluegrass bands – the Blue Highways, Union Stations and the McCourys – and other truly great bands, and that line takes years to approach. But once traversed, the affect is aurally apparent: the playing is just a notch crisper, the harmonies a stitch cleaner, the interpretation a sliver more innovative. With their previous album Papertown, Balsam Range edged a significant step toward to that destination; with Five, they have arrived. The International Bluegrass Music Association apparently agreed with me as the group walked away with multiple honours this fall including Vocal Group of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year (for Buddy Melton), and the highly coveted Entertainer of the Year award. Review here: http://www.countrystandardtime.com/d/cdreview.asp?xid=5477
- Phil Leadbetter- The Next Move (Pinecastle) With a bluegrass heart at the core of the album, Phil Leadbetter and his many collaborators have created a wonderful disc that should find favour with those who are open to strong country influences. The reigning IBMA Dobro Player of the year has done very well here, and has enlisted strong singers including John Cowan, Steve Gulley, Dale Ann Bradley, Con Hunley, and especially Shawn Camp to give voice to the songs. Full review here: http://www.countrystandardtime.com/blog/FervorCouleeBluegrass/entry.asp?xid=1013
- Annie Lou- Tried and True (www.AnnieLou.ca) A little old-time, a bit of bluegrass, some folk, and a whole lot of energy- a darned good album, I do believe. Full review here: http://lonesomeroadreview.com/2014/12/28/tried-and-true-by-annie-lou/
- Doc Watson & David Grisman- Live in Watsonville (Acoustic Disc) Can’t argue with Doc and Dawg.
- The Special Consensus & Friends- Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver (Compass) Special Consensus, riding a career high since joining forces with Compass Records, are approaching their 40th year under the guidance of Greg Cahill, a banjo master. On Country Boy, they are joined by bluegrass and Americana luminaries including Dale Ann Bradley, Jim Lauderdale, John Cowan, and producer Alison Brown. What holds it back from a 5 star label? Two too few songs, that’s it. They picked up a couple IBMA Awards this past October for their efforts. Full review here: http://lonesomeroadreview.com/2014/03/27/country-boy-a-bluegrass-tribute-to-john-denver-by-special-consensus-friends/
- Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper- On Down the Line (Compass Records) The Detroit Red Wings of the bluegrass league: not always the champion, but always in the mix. Full review here: http://www.countrystandardtime.com/d/cdreview.asp?xid=5476
- The Earls of Leicester- The Earls of Leicester (Rounder) The Jerry Douglas-led supergroup released probably the most popular and well-received bluegrass album of the year. Not a misstep anywhere in sight. Full review at: https://fervorcoulee.wordpress.com/2014/10/18/the-earls-of-leicester-review/
- Crowe, Lawson, and Williams- Standing Tall and Tough (Mountain Home) Three bluegrass legends, together again. Full review at https://fervorcoulee.wordpress.com/2014/09/13/crowe-lawson-williams-standing-tall-and-tough-review/
- Bradford Lee Folk & The Bluegrass Playboys- Somewhere Far Away (Five of Diamonds) My original review is here: http://lonesomeroadreview.com/2014/12/28/tried-and-true-by-annie-lou/ It goes on a bit about Open Road, Folk’s previous group.
- The Osborne Brothers- Nashville (Pinecastle) A light companion to the previous three volumes in this Pinecastle series tracing the musical roots of Sonny and Bobby, but the performances are top-drawer. Great bluegrass infused country songs.
Honourable Mentions- John Reischman & the Jaybirds and The Show Ponies who each released very impressive mini-album e.p.s. The Jaybirds project On A Winter’s Night was a set of Christmas-themed traditional and folk songs on which the Jaybirds- in a variety of configurations- again proved no one else approaches acoustic music quite like them. The Show Ponies have an energetic sound and have perfectly captured their music in their five-song taster, Run For Your Life.
And with that, 2014 comes to a close. Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Best, Donald