Earlier this week I had a trip to Boston booked on Jet Blue Airlines. When I sat down in the seat, I glanced at the arm rest and thought, “Hot dog – Jet Blue is the airline with free XM radio!” I whipped out my ear buds and settled in for 90 minutes of the XM station Bluegrass Junction.
I love to listen to my own iPod playlist, but it also great fun to settle in to an airline seat or a rental car to catch XM radio’s bluegrass station. Every time that happens I always end up hearing some great new music, and my Boston trip was no exception.
On one leg of the trip, the station was featuring one of its staples: a program entitled Track By Track where the DJ plays a full album by a featured artist who provides commentary along the way. This week’s show featured the new Compass Records album Somewhere South of Crazy by the Southern songbird Dale Ann Bradley.
Now I’ve heard Dale Ann Bradley off and on through the years, but to be able to sit and listen to a full album – especially one that features the wonderful banjo playing of Compass Records CEO Alison Brown – was eye (or ear) opening. What a wonderful bluegrass voice.
That led me to check out the Compass Records web site, which is chock full of music by a treasure trove of acoustic musicians. I immediately downloaded several Bradley tunes (including the wonderful live solo version of Old Southern Porches). I also sampled the new work by Bearfoot – a band I’ve loved live and in the studio – and ended up downloading the entire American Story album, which is highly recommended.
Then my eye wandered over to the new Noam Pikelny album Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail on Compass, which I’d seen previewed on the Bluegrass Today blog. In fact, I’d read the interview with Pikelny in the online version of The Fretboard Journal – my favorite magazine – just the day before. Pikelny is the banjoist with the Punch Brothers and won the inaugural, $50,000 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, an award he was given on the David Letterman show. Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail is a terrific showcase for Pikelny’s technical prowess and musicianship. Naturally, I downloaded the entire album!
My bank account (and the fact that I have two children in college) put the brakes on further purchases for the day, but I loved sampling more on the Compass site. John Doyle – my choice for the best rhythm guitarist in roots music today – has a new record out, and I recently purchased the release from his former Solas band mates Mick McAuley and Winifred Horan. I continue to believe that the Nashville-based Compass Records has taken over the spot as the best roots music independent label on the scene today.
Besides Alison Brown and the Compass staff, the other person who deserves a great deal of credit for helping to promote and support roots music is none other than comedian – and banjo player – Steve Martin. Along with his own bluegrass records with The Steep Canyon Rangers (named “Entertainer of the Year” at the 2011 International Bluegrass Music Association awards) and the aforementioned prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, Martin has worked tirelessly to showcase the tremendous musicians playing bluegrass and acoustic music today. Just go to You Tube and search for “Steve Martin Banjo” and you’ll see great videos with greats such as Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck, and Tony Trischka.
There’s so much good acoustic music being played at the moment, and I just want to say thanks to Alison Brown and Steve Martin for following their vision in bringing it to us.
Martin awarded his prize on David Letterman…and did it with his usual wit. Check out the video below of Dueling Banjos with Martin and Pikelny…great banjo and pretty damn funny comedy as well.
More to come…