Bluegrass kept stretching its boundaries in 2013 with new albums from a bounty of musicians, ranging from a true country legend to a young and hungry Nashville band. Among a crowded field, here are 10 of my personal favorite projects from the past year.
Alan Jackson, The Bluegrass Album
Fulfilling a longtime dream, this Opry star indulged himself with a fresh-sounding project with many of the genre’s top musicians. The original tunes like “Blue Ridge Mountain Song” fit neatly next to nimble covers like “There Is a Time” and “Wild and Blue.”
James King, Three Chords and the Truth
This bluegrass storyteller has been known to well up onstage when he delivers a sad song. You might, too. By drawing on country weepers like “Chiseled in Stone” and “Things Have Gone to Pieces,” King landed a surprise Grammy nod for this strong collection of heartfelt covers.
Del McCoury Band, The Streets of Baltimore
He’s now a bluegrass icon, but McCoury takes a moment to reflect on paying his dues around the Baltimore music scene. Rather than making a wistful album, though, there’s all the humor and heartbreak you’d expect from Del and the boys. Nice work on the classic title track, too. (Read the CMT Edge interview.)
Noam Pikelny, Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe
A gifted banjo player, Pikelny reworks the famed fiddler’s classic album from 1976. Despite the quirky cover photo and title, it’s not a joke. Pikelny brings a new vitality to tunes like “Big Sandy River,” making them sound modern and classic — and masterful — all at the same time. (Read the CMT Edge interview.)
Peter Rowan, The Old School
With 50 years of bluegrass cred, Rowan leads a master class with The Old School. The special guests are plentiful, but it’s Rowan’s singular songwriting that elevates this beyond a vanity project. If grades were given at this old school, the title track would guarantee an easy A. (Read the CMT Edge interview.)
Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, On the Edge
What sets Solivan and his band apart from the countless other ensembles out there? For me, it’s the perceptive songwriting and the strong, melodic undercurrent that surges through songs like “Day to Day,” plus he’s a heck of a singer. Bluegrass festivals would be lucky to have him. (Read the CMT Edge interview.)
Steep Canyon Rangers, Tell the Ones I Love
One of the most expressive bluegrass bands you’ll find, the Rangers forge ahead with their latest effort. Their astute songwriting continues to grow on tunes like “Hunger” and “Tell the Ones I Love,” plus their personalities shine through in their musicianship and dynamic vocals. (Read the CMT Edge interview.)
Donna Ulisse, Showin’ My Roots
Just before diving into a formidable stack of country classics, Ulisse salutes her songwriting heroes like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton on the thoughtful title track. This pleasing set concludes with a message relatable to any music fan: “I’ve Always Had a Song I Can Lean On.”
Doc Watson, The Definitive Doc Watson
Watson’s music isn’t necessarily bluegrass, yet it’s hard to imagine that a bluegrass fan wouldn’t enjoy “Black Mountain Rag” or “Greenville Trestle High.” These 34 tracks stretch from 1960s’ folk tunes to the delightful “Whiskey Before Breakfast” recorded with Bryan Sutton in 2005.
Westbound Rangers, Gone for Way Too Long
These four guys show an appreciation for roots music — without feeling fenced in — on Gone for Way Too Long. Creative songwriting and loose harmonies on tunes like “One of These Days” make this a fine album for just hanging out and drinking a beer or two. Ride on, fellows.