I get to listen to quite a lot of bluegrass music. Much of it I seek out, purchasing my fair share. I am also fortunate to have many bluegrass albums sent to me for review. I appreciate this, and don’t take it for granted. One of the things I am most proud of- having written about bluegrass now for twenty flippin’ years- is that it is occasionally pointed out by folk I respect that I approach bluegrass review writing from a more critical perspective. I appreciate that feedback. As anyone reading this likely already knows, much of what passes for bluegrass reviews are little more than promo sheet rewrites. I have no interest in doing that type of writing here at Fervor Coulee: I’ll save that for when I am asked to write content for a festival program or similar assignment. Here at Fervor Coulee, I call a spade a spade, from my point of view: if an album is boring, I’ll call it that. Or bland. Uninspired. And if an album is inspirational and compelling, I’ll label it as such.
After all these years, there is still nothing like a mando fill or a g-run to perk my ears. I love this music, and doing a bit of searching around this site (try ‘bluegrass’ and ‘2019’ in the search field) will bring about a list of twenty-six albums reviewed at Fervor Coulee (or linked here and published elsewhere) and I’ve heard that many again, and more. Here are my ten favourites of 2019, published over at Fervor Coulee Bluegrass:
2019 saw a range of quality bluegrass albums released, and they were coming at me for review so quickly at times that I may not have had time to hear your favourite. Of the many bluegrass albums I heard in 2019, these are my favourites. As always, these are ‘favourites,’ not ‘best,’ based on what I heard, and-as important-after positions five-six-or-so, titles could be flipped and flopped depending on my mood and what I’m listening to on a given day.
1. Dale Ann Bradley- “The Hard Way” She is the voice of the music’s softer side, no country posturing or pop-blurring. Bradley remains ‘mountain as rock,’ natural and unpretentious, and her confidence and self-determination allow the East Kentucky native do pursue her art undeterred by genre convention or others’ constraints. A complete, dynamic recording.
2. Chris Jones & the Night Drivers- “The Chosen Road” Another in a solid stream of excellent bluegrass releases from Northern Alberta’s favourite adopted son. 2019 brought us another terrific recording presenting a modern interpretation of bluegrass ranking with the best of The Seldom Scene and The Country Gentlemen. It held up to repeated listening, revealing additional shades and textures as it became more familiar.
3. Jason Barie- “Pieces” Best known as fiddler for Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers, Jason Barie is something else. Each song here is fully developed, its arrangement comprehensive and multi-faceted, every mandolin chop and banjo chime as integral to the album’s mood and sound as the fiddlers’ trills.
4. Darin & Brooke Aldridge- “Inner Journey” On their seventh studio release, and first for the venerable Rounder Records label, bluegrass music’s reigning power-duo present another collection of stellar modern bluegrass, avoiding pitfalls of select contemporaries. It is marked by consistent yet individually distinct performances, a mix of pleasing tempos and approaches with no two songs inconspicuously flowing together. Top-tier bluegrass, this is.
5. Deanie Richardson- “Love Hard Work Hard Play Hard” Like Jason Barie’s “Pieces,” this album goes well beyond what one expects from a bluegrass fiddle album. Thank goodness for that-unless your name is Kenny Baker, we really don’t need another bluegrass fiddle album, do we? Nope, this one captures all the shades of ‘grass one wants, as well as country and Celtic tones. This album is killer!
6. Gena Britt- “Chronicle: Friends and Music” Thirteen tracks, six featuring Britt on lead vocals and each recorded with some of bluegrass music’s most recognizable names including her Sister Sadie compatriots. Cohesive in sound and presentation. Great music.
7. Nick Hornbuckle- “13 or So” “13 or So” is very different from its predecessor, “12 x 2 (+/- 1).” This time Hornbuckle has written the dozen tunes, linking each to an important element of his life and journey. It is a brighter album, perhaps because the majority feature a full-band setting. An impressive vision of modern bluegrass banjo.
8. The Seldom Scene- “Changes” I just liked it and listened to it a lot. Old songs sure, but a nice throwback album.
9. The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys- “Toil, Tears, & Trouble” The band has taken time honing a keen approach to traditional bluegrass, infusing it with a large slug of country influence while staying true to the members’ East Tennessee and Southern Missouri roots.
10. Larry Sparks- “New Moon Over My Shoulder” Bluegrass has changed a great deal since 1969, but Larry Sparks’ approach has not. Sparks’ country-soul approach to bluegrass singing is on fine display. Larry Sparks hasn’t recorded too much the last decade, which makes “New Moon Over My Shoulder” that much more significant.