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Best bluegrass of 2013

This year brought us some very good bluegrass music – much of it coming out of Alison Brown’s Compass Records in Nashville. In looking at the different albums that came to my attention in 2013, three of my top five bluegrass releases of the year came from this eclectic roots music label which has been stretching boundaries and introducing the world to exciting new artists for almost two decades.

Dear Sister

First up in the More to Come… “Best of Bluegrass 2013” list is the wonderful Claire Lynch and her Dear Sister project (and not just because she signed my CD cover).  This is a great group of songs that include tunes I began writing about almost two years ago.  The title track comes from letters written before the Civil War battle of Stones River – fought near my hometown of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I’ll Be Alright Tomorrow is a new working of the Osborne Brothers classic, that sounds just right in the hands of the newly minted 2013 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Female Vocalist of the Year. Claire’s killer band gets to showcase its chops throughout Dear Sister, including bassist Mark Schatz considerable hambone skills on Buttermilk Road/The Arbours.

Dear Sister is another in the impressive catalog of Claire Lynch recordings.  Enjoy the video of Once the Teardrops Start to Fall from this project. You will get a sense of the terrific music this wonderful songbird and her band of outstanding musicians continue to make.

Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen On the Edge

Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen‘s On the Edge is an impressive work for the second release from this Washington, DC-based band. Solivan (who doubles as a chef – hence the catchy band name) is an impressive mandolin player who has assembled a dynamite group of pickers, including IBMA 2013 Banjo Player of the Year Mike Munford and IBMA 2013 Momentum Award winner Chris Luquette.  To understand how this group jells, it doesn’t get any better than the description of the band from an Irish Times review:

If Tim O’Brien and Alison Brown ever had a love child, it might just be Frank Solivan. This newgrass/bluegrass foursome spirals through skin-tight banjo picking, razor-sharp mandolin and jazz-tinged concentric circles – all with a degree of control that balances technical precision and improvisational virtuosity.


The project begins with a bang on I Fell Short (On Standing Tall) thanks, in part, to guest Rob Ickes’ dobro. A bluegrass remake of the old Box Tops hit The Letter shows these guys can handle a wide range of styles – and make great new music in the process. M80 is a terrific instrumental, where Munford (the tune’s author) and Luquette really shine. On the Edge of Letting Go tackles mental illness – a topic not often explored in traditional bluegrass – with a sensitivity and restrained musical accompaniment.  On the Edge ends with a jazz-infused instrumental, Bedrock.

Most commentators have said this is the project to put Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen in the top-tier of bluegrass bands, and I agree.

The first video I posted with this blog has been removed, so treat yourself to the band’s version of I Fell Short (of Standing Tall).

Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe

The third Compass Records release to make my “Best Bluegrass of 2013” list is one of the coolest concept albums to come along in years – banjo phenom Noam Pikelny recreating the famous 1976 Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe album.

In Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, Pikelny recreates the twelve Monroe instrumentals that long-time Monroe fiddler Kenny Baker included on his landmark album. For those who have heard Pikelny (the winner of the inaugural Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass) with the Punch Brothers or from his earlier Compass release Beat The Devil and Carry A Rail, this is as close to straight bluegrass as Pikelny’s going to get.

The players Pikelny assembled for this project are cream of the crop bluegrass pickers:  Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, Bryan Sutton on guitar, and Mike Bub on bass. The first track, Road to Columbus, has Pikelny beginning with a straightforward bluegrass banjo break, but on the second and especially third breaks, he explores the fretboard in ways that Earl (rest his soul) never imagined.  Jerusalem Ridge – one of my all time favorite Monroe instrumentals – gets a similar treatment.  Candice and I heard Pikelny on the Sirius XM Bluegrass Junction show Track By Track just last week, and it was fascinating to hear him talk about this project in general and Jerusalem Ridge in particular.  The ending double banjo/fiddle duet with Stuart Duncan is short, but sweet.

Noam Pikelney

For lovers of instrumental bluegrass, there isn’t a false note on this record. I’ve posted a video of “Noam Pikelny and Friends” playing the Monroe instrumental Wheel Hoss, which is a cut from the Kenny Baker/Bill Monroe project.  Pikelny, Bryan Sutton, and Luke Bulla have especially wonderful solos. Who knew fingers could fly that fast!?!  (Well, I did, but then I can’t imagine mine going at one-quarter of that speed.)  As much as I love the progressive work that Pikelny does these days, I am glad he took the time to return to some bluegrass roots on this project, and I applaud Compass for backing this type of work.  Enjoy!

The SteelDrivers Hammer Down

I’ll admit it…I love The SteelDrivers type of bluegrass, even though purists would point out that their lead singer sounds more Muscle Shoals than Kentucky hills and some members of the band play a lot of commercial country in their day jobs as Nashville studio musicians.

The group’s 2013 Rounder Records release Hammer Down continues the tradition of their first two recordings – great songwriting, soulful vocals, and skillful instrumental treatments.  This is the first of the group’s three albums with Gary Nichols taking over the lead vocals from founding member Chris Stapleton, and he more than holds his own.

Hammer Down begins with the haunting Shallow Grave about the burying of an addiction. (“I buried my love with a silver spade, Laid her down in the shallow grave, Can’t keep love in the cold, cold ground, Nothing in the earth can hold her down.”) The harmonies between Nichols, fiddler Tammy Rogers, and bassist Mike Fleming are one of the things that make this band’s work so satisfying – and they are off to a strong start on Shallow Grave.

One commentator noted that a trio of dysfunctional relationship songs starts the album…but I think that’s where this band makes its living. The trio ends with the sprightly When You Don’t Come Home, Rogers’ harmonies giving this tune the perfect honky-tonk feel.  Ditto for Wearin’ a Hole (in a honky-tonk floor). The SteelDrivers do break up the fast-paced melancholy with some slow-paced melancholy on occasion (give a listen to I’ll Be There), but this is a band that is best when it is ripping through some whiskey-soaked tune. Hell on Wheels is a fun take on the story of a wild young woman living in a small rural town.  That tune, plus Cry No Mississippi (another small town story) and When I’m Gone are a very satisfying trio of songs to end Hammer Down.

The SteelDrivers have survived the departure of two founding members and yet continue to make great music.  Take a listen to the video of When You Don’t Come Home and see if you don’t agree.

The Stray Birds "Echo Sessions"

My fifth choice isn’t really bluegrass and it really isn’t an album…but I’ve fallen in love with The Stray Birds and just want to write about them.

In 2013, this folk, Americana, roots music outfit put out a five-song EP recorded at the Echo Mountain Studios in North Carolina (hence the project’s name). Echo Sessions is dedicated to five songwriters that have touched the band members through the years.  I recently heard the group’s terrific take on Jimmie Rodgers’ Blue Yodel #7 (Anniversary Blue Yodel) from the Echo Sessions and was smitten.

So who are songwriters that rank with these three musicians? The EP begins with the Townes Van Zandt tune Loretta, and then moves to the beautiful Susannah Clark song I’ll Be Your San Antonio Rose.  The Louvin Brothers contribute When I Stop Dreaming, followed by Rodgers – one of the most influential songwriters of all time.  The EP ends with Nanci Griffith’s I Wish It Would Rain.  Not a bad line-up of inspirational songwriters and not a bad EP for one-day’s live session.

The Stray Birds are making a splash on the festival and club circuit (they open for the Seldom Scene here at the Birchmere on New Year’s Eve), so this is more a “keep your eye on them” note than a “Best of 2013” post.  Look for their second full-length album in the Spring of 2014. And to prove that others see them as bluegrass, I’m posting a video from WAMU’s Bluegrass Country of the tune Time in Squares.  Enjoy.

Just a final note about how this list is chosen.  Not being a professional reviewer, I don’t receive dozens of CDs to review. I do listen to a fair amount of bluegrass on WAMU’s Bluegrass Country and Sirius XM’s Bluegrass Junction.  The latter’s Track By Track show is a great way to hear new music all year long.  But I know I miss some bands and performers that others would put on any “best of” list for the year.  These just happen to be the ones that caught my ear and led me to purchase them for my own collection. I hope you find something you’ll like in this grouping.  I can’t wait to see what 2014 brings.

More to come…




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