Anyone who’s ever tried to persuade a committed bluegrass fan to listen to other styles of music knows that such an endeavor is about as easy as getting a vegan to eat a bone-in rib eye. So finding new releases that bluegrass fans might enjoy is no small feat. But the albums listed here might just fit the bill — because while they’re not bluegrass, per se, they all have rootsy pedigrees. Indeed, these records should get even the most persnickety bluegrassers humming along.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Leaving Eden
Not content to play it straight, the Chocolate Drops honor tradition without groveling to it. Songs like “Leaving Eden” (my pick for song of the year) and “Country Girl” owe as much to Lauryn Hill as they do Bessie Jones. Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemons and Hubby Jenkins together are a perfect storm. She sings like an angel, and they play like the devil.
Iris Dement, Sing the Delta
Spoiler alert: This album could sweep next year’s Americana Awards. Shrewd songwriting and lamentations over hearts never mended, dice never rolled and battles never won make it a potential lock. “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray” is so gripping, it took a slew of repeat-plays before I could get to the rest of the record.
Jerry Douglas, Traveler
After listening to this album by the Dobro master, a hard-line bluegrasser might say, “This record has about as much to do with bluegrass as Henry Kissinger has to do with bluegrass!” Alas, they’d be missing the point. As Bill Monroe did way back when, Douglas uses bluegrass as a jumping-off point to push his instrument — and the music — to places yonder.
Larry Keel & Natural Bridge, Classic
With Classic, guitarist Keel takes bluegrass down the rabbit hole and adroitly unites the old and new. Too skilled of a musician to kowtow to traditional dogma or modern contrivances, Keel takes possession of the ancient tones, puts his own spin on them and delivers a jamgrass collection that’s really a traditional record in disguise.
Jim Lauderdale, Carolina Moonshine: Bluegrass Songs by Robert Hunter and Jim Lauderdale
I just love a Lauderdale-Hunter collaboration. Musically, Carolina Sunshine is the most traditional-sounding record on this list, but the lyrics, while they deal in familiar bluegrass motifs, are more modern in their poetry. This contrast makes for a highly listenable record that feels unfamiliar enough to stay exciting all the way through.
Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This
On this live album, O’Brien and Scott take the old-time brother tradition pioneered by duos like the Blue Sky Boys and inject it with a dose of steroids. Their remarkable ability to play off each other’s musical maneuverings, coupled with phenomenal songwriting, results in a record that even bluegrass stalwarts won’t be able to resist.
Old Crow Medicine Show, Carry Me Back
This record is all acoustic and the songs are played in an old-timey style with aplomb. The lyrics speak of baptisms, razor fights, bootleggers, love, regret, estrangement, soldiers dying in foreign lands and making love on a Saturday night in Mississippi. Really, what’s not to like?
Ricky Skaggs, Music to My Ears
Music to My Ears finds Skaggs at the top of his game. And with “You Can’t Hurt Ham,” he may have waxed his greatest contribution to the bluegrass canon. No doubt, this tune will be played at bluegrass festivals a hundred years from now. But the best thing about this album is that it’s free of cynicism, which gives it an invigorating quality few records possess.
Tennessee Mafia Jug Band, Screams From the Holler
This is the real stuff, and these fellers play it like they live it. The music here comes from foggy mountaintops and harks back to a time when old men ate 10-cents-a-pound saltines while they played checkers at the general store. This record goes a long way to prove how overwhelmingly powerful a simple, unadorned delivery can be.
The Time Jumpers, The Time Jumpers
Comprised of quite a few Music City A-List players, a Western music legend and one country music star, the Time Jumpers are a supergroup that swings with the best of them. Do they play bluegrass? Well, no. But when I die, I hope Bob Wills is waiting at the pearly gates. He’ll welcome me with a big “Awww-ha!” — and the Time Jumpers will be the house band on the other side.