Last week, I drove up to Louisville, Kentucky, to visit friends and to give my undivided attention to new bluegrass albums I’ve been enjoying this year. (Kentucky is the Bluegrass State after all.) Here are 10 of my favorite finds for fans of that high, lonesome sound.
Blue Highway, The Game
These guys offer a mature, hard-won perspective that is rare in modern music. All five musicians are original members of the band, and they admirably take turns as singers and songwriters. On the whole, this is a beautiful and melodic album that runs the gamut from clever to thoughtful, and true to bluegrass tradition, they promptly kill off a few characters in the riveting title track.
Jim & Jesse, Radio Shows
Recorded in 1962, this material comprises the most requested songs from the brother duo’s broadcasts. Jesse McReynolds’ mandolin weaves throughout the consistently entertaining set, while Jim McReynolds’ tenor voice really shines on “Going Like Wildfire.” Showing their versatility, it’s a kick to hear “Beer Barrel Polka” followed by “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown.”
Irene Kelley, Pennsylvania Coal
This talented songwriter fulfilled a lifelong dream by recording Pennsylvania Coal, matching topnotch bluegrass musicians with original material that leans toward traditional country. An expressive singer, Kelley starts off with a couple of bummer topics, then she celebrates lasting love and a cherished family as the album goes on. By the end, you feel like you know her.
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers featuring Edie Brickell, Live
With an unexpected synergy between these artists, this concert album works on a lot of levels. Along with being a quite capable banjo player, Martin’s storytelling and wit is on full display, while Brickell’s singing adds a sweet counterpoint. Meanwhile, the Steep Canyon Rangers keep things anchored with exceptional musicianship. The companion DVD is equally enjoyable.
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West, I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands
This is the kind of album I like best on a road trip because I can really listen to the lyrics and get attuned to the intimate production. In particular, I appreciate throwing a spotlight on the banjo here. Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, these fellows aren’t related, but they sing together like kin. Many of the songs are poetic while others are just quirky, but they all hold my attention.
Old Crow Medicine Show, Remedy
Although this set adheres closer to country and old-time music, Remedy brims with energy and ambition. Ketch Secor shows a heartfelt side on “Dearly Departed Friend,” but “Brushy Mountain Conjugal Trailer” and “8 Dogs, 8 Banjos” will get crowds shouting along. “Sweet Amarillo,” another writing partnership with Bob Dylan, makes a strong first impression.
The Osborne Brothers, Nashville
In the early 1970s, the Osborne Brothers gathered A-list studio musicians and recorded seven sides in the famed Bradley’s Barn studio — then held onto the reels after leaving Decca Records. Forty years later, this EP captures the duo with one foot planted firmly in mountain tradition and the other tapping into a country vibe. Their Louvin Brothers covers are particularly cool.
The Seldom Scene, Long Time … Seldom Scene
A wistful look back, Long Time … Seldom Scene puts an appealing, acoustic spin on songs like Gram Parsons’ “Hickory Wind,” Merle Haggard’s “California Cottonfields” and George Jones’ “Walk Through This World With Me.” The Washington, D.C.-based band also reprise one of their prettiest songs, “Wait a Minute,” with a guest turn by original member John Starling.
Bryan Sutton, Into My Own
The impeccable picking of the lead track, “Cricket on the Hearth,” opens the door to a diverse array of musical styles. Although he’s known as one of Nashville’s top guitarists, Sutton turns in a pleasing vocal performance of Guy Clark’s “Anyhow, I Love You.” Other personal favorites include the beautiful “Overton Waltz” and the hometown homage of “Swannanoa Tunnel.”
Rhonda Vincent, Only Me
This hard-working, award-winning bluegrass star shows off her influences with a double-disc set, Only Me. The bluegrass segment boasts Willie Nelson and Daryle Singletary as special guests, then she submits a twangy take on “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin” on the country side. Clearly in her comfort zones, she proves that she knows her way around a heartbreak tune.