I’m not going to pretend that this is a “best of” list for roots music in 2015. With so many things thrown on my plate this year, I haven’t had the time to sample as widely as I would like. (Come to think of it, the last time I felt comfortable enough to publish a “best of list” was 2013!) But I’m very comfortable with a favorites list that just says, “Hey, I like these and I hope you will too.”
So with that caveat, let’s see what’s made the cut.
The SteelDrivers: The Muscle Shoals Recordings – I’ve loved this Nashville-based bluegrass band for years, even as they have moved through personnel changes that included their lead singer and main songwriter. (More on that later.) The Muscle Shoals Recordings is really the first album where Gary Nichols stepped out on his own as the lead voice for The SteelDrivers – no longer in Chris Stapelton’s shadow.
Singer-songwriter Peter Cooper describes it this way:
Right there, at two minutes and ten seconds into the first song, “Long Way Down.” The part where Gary Nichols sings, “Girl, we both know where your soul is bound.” Only he bleeds it as much as he sings it. He sounds murderous, maniacal. Her soul is bound for nothing skyward, for nothing heavenly. And he’s fine with that.
Richard Bailey’s banjo plays funky, little Kentucky-goes-to-Memphis rolls. Tammy Rogers’ fiddle soars. Brent Truitt’s mandolin chops time, and Mike Fleming’s bass pounds the downbeat. And all that is righteous and right-on. Elevated, even. But Nichols—he lets loose something the opposite of righteousness. It’s a howl, full of hurt and anger and life. Starts on the highest E note that 99.9% of male singers can hit, then ascends into a sweet falsetto, and then opens up like the gates of Hell, into a reeling screech.
“That made me dizzy for a second,” Nichols says, remembering the moment he sang the line. “Really, I almost passed out. There are certain lines in SteelDrivers songs that require a little bit of Wilson Pickett.”
As you can see, The SteelDrivers aren’t your normal bluegrass band. While the instruments are bluegrass staples – played by some of Nashville’s best players – there is no “high lonesome” sound here.
Besides “Long Way Down,” there are other fine offerings on The Muscle Shoals Recordings. “Drinkin’ Alone” fits in the catalog of great SteelDriver drinking songs. “Here She Goes” is a heartfelt song about divorce. “California Chainsaw” allows the band to show off their considerable instrumental chops.
This is a fine project, through and through. Give it a listen.
Watkins Family Hour – Sean and Sarah Watkins are well-known as the brother and sister founding members of Nickel Creek with mandolin phenom Chris Thile. They are less well-known for their monthly show in Los Angles where they invite friends to join them in a wide-ranging exploration of American music. A friend who has seen that show calls it magical.
For those of us who can’t get to LA on a regular basis, the Watkins have given us the next best thing, with the release of 2015’s Watkins Family Hour.
All the songs on the album are covers, and the incredible musicians play them at the high level you’d expect. But that description really doesn’t do this project justice. Everyone showcases their talent in ways both expected and surprising.
In the latter category, check out Sara Watkins’ vocal on Hop High. You won’t hear anything like that vocal range on a Nickel Creek album. The range of musical styles includes country (“Where I Ought to Be”), folk (“Early Morning Rain”), New Orleans-style blues (“Prescription for the Blues”) and more. Recommended.
Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions by Robert Earl Keen. If this was a “best of” list for 2015, I probably wouldn’t include this set of 15 bluegrass standards by Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen. But there’s enough on this valentine to the music that fits Keen’s free-wheeling style and sensibilities to ensure that it can easily make a “favorites” list.
The album begins with one of my favorite Flatt and Scruggs tunes, the silly “Hot Corn, Cold Corn.” The duets with Lyle Lovett and Natalie Maines – especially “Wayfaring Stranger” – are terrific. In addition to his regular band, Keen brings in banjo-picker extraordinaire Danny Barnes and fiddler Sara Watkins to fill out the sound. When Keen sings “99 Years for One Dark Day,” his boozy voice is a perfect fit for the tune.
This is a heartfelt romp through some of the greats of the bluegrass repertoire, and I always get a lift when one of the tunes comes up on the playlist. What more can you hope for in a favorites list.
Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn – I realize that this album was released in the fall of 2014, but I didn’t buy it until earlier this year…and it is my blog so I can list any thing I want!
This is a wonderful album from two musicians who have taken the banjo down wildly divergent paths. Fleck, known for his incredibly complex jazz-influenced improvisational flights, connects on so many levels with his wife and musical partner Washburn, who is best known for her beautiful, simple playing and singing that draws from folk and world music traditions.
The reworking of the traditional “Railroad” (as in, “I’ve been working on…”) opens the project on a high note which continues all the way through to “Bye Bye Baby Blues.” There are so many gems here, that I could just go down the set list. “What’cha Gonna Do,” “Pretty Polly,” “And Am I Born to Die,” and “Banjo Banjo” are personal favorites.
There are so many good online videos of Bela and Abigail playing together that it was hard to choose just one. (I especially hated to drop the version of “Banjo Pickin’ Girl” they did to support public transportation in Nashville.) But their “Shotgun Blues” demonstrates the percussive and melodic tones that come from these two banjo masters. Enjoy!
Pokey LaFarge – Something in the Water – For something completely different, I encourage you to give Pokey LaFarge a listen. This is his Rounder Records debut, although he’s been touring and recording for a decade. LaFarge is a witty and gifted songwriter, and his live shows are infectious.
This 2015 project expands on his previous work and includes not only his regular combo, but members of various groups including NRBQ, the Fat Babies, the Modern Sounds, and the Western Elstons. But as he notes on his website, the sound remains “Midwestern.”
The Midwest is at the heart of this record,” LaFarge asserts. “The people playing on these songs are from Wisconsin and Illinois and Chicago and St. Louis, and there’s a certain attitude that comes across in the songs and the way that they’re performed. I’m born and raised in the Midwest, and my family’s been here for generations. This is where I’m from and how I think, and that’s reflected in the music I make.
The title track gets the joint jumping, about his girl “who does her makeup and hair, to cook fried chicken in her underwear.” “Wanna Be Your Man” has a New Orleans ragtime feel, while “Underground” has a distinctive Pokey perspective on the end of the world. The whole thing wraps up with the infectious “Knockin’ the Dust Off The Rust Belt Tonight.”
Makes me want to drive to St. Louis for his New Year’s Eve Show!
And now…a bonus selection!
Chris Stapleton – Traveller – I’m not sure how an album that was named Country Music Album of the Year counts as roots music these days…but when that record is from one of the best pure country voices to come along in years singing incredible music, it just does. Trust me.
Stapleton was the founding lead singer and primary songwriter for The SteelDrivers from 2008-2010, adding a new take on bluegrass that has helped reinvigorate the genre. He also spent the past few years writing hits for country stars all over Nashville. Finally, he went into historic Studio A (God, am I glad we were able to help the community save that place!) and recorded his “debut” album. Which promptly won him awards as Best Male Vocalist and New Artist of the Year, in addition to the CMA Album of the Year award.
Every song on here is terrific. If you want a sample, go to You Tube, type in Stapleton’s name, and spend the evening listening to him sing. To my mind, the album’s best song is “Fire Away.” Just listen to that voice and guitar. Oh my…
I hope you found something new to explore and enjoy. Here’s to a musical 2016.
More to come…