All posts filed under: Bluegrass Music

I grew up with Flatt & Scruggs and WSM’s Martha White show on the radio every morning, but truly went down the rabbit hole the first time I placed the needle on side 1 / track 1 of the “Circle” album

Steel Wheels 2015

Saturday Soundtrack: The Steel Wheels

I first became aware of The Steel Wheels somewhere around 2008. I had picked up a CD of the Shenandoah Valley-based band on one of our Thanksgiving trips to Staunton and was introduced to and intrigued by the unique voice and careful songcraft of lead singer and songwriter Trent Wagler. But it was at Merlefest in 2012 that the band pushed their way into the front part of my brain, and, I suspect, the brains of thousands of other music fans as well. After one of the main acts wrapped up their show, as I wrote at the time, a number of attendees were exiting the main stage area on the first night of the festival. Suddenly, The Steel Wheels began singing their powerful Rain in the Valley on a small side stage. And like bees flowing to honey, those leaving stopped, turned around, and were glued to their seats through a spirited 30-minute set. As expected, later TSW shows throughout the weekend were packed, as word spread fast. And just like that, they quickly …

Saturday Soundtrack: Mark O’Connor

The 15th anniversary issue of Fretboard Journal* landed in my mailbox this week, just in time to reacquaint me with an old friend: Mark O’Connor. It was a welcome reunion. First, because I discovered that O’Connor — one of the most inventive string musicians of this era — has returned to playing guitar, after a twenty year break that was required by the pain of bursitis and tendonitis. Then I also found his Improvising Toward Democracy solo fiddle pieces on the internet. As he tell his listeners, “I am recording an improvisation on my violin each day, until our country is safe from the clutches of Trumpism, Cultism, Conspiratorialism, Racism and Authoritarianism. I will record a new violin improvisation each day as a form of a sincere musical prayer until Biden/Harris are voted in to the White House ensuring that Americans will retain our hard-fought democracy. I have been given a musical gift, so I will use this in service to my country and our Republic each day now. When I improvise in this manner …

Saturday Soundtrack: Matt Flinner

Matt Flinner is the top-shelf mandolinist and composer not enough people know. At least not in the way that music fans know that force of nature Chris Thile, or the Energizer Bunny clone Sam Bush, or the genre-bending trail-blazer David Grisman. But musicians have long been aware of this quiet master, who, in the words of the Associated Press, “blurs the lines between jazz and bluegrass, traditional and avant-garde” with the best of them. Flinner’s website bio showcases just how in-demand he is as a musician. “Multi-instrumentalist Matt Flinner has made a career out of playing acoustic music in new ways. Starting out as a banjo prodigy who was playing bluegrass festivals before he entered his teens, Flinner later took up the mandolin, won the National Banjo Contest at Winfield Kansas in 1990, and took the mandolin award there the following year. Since then, he has become recognized as one of the premiere mandolinists as well as one of the finest new acoustic/roots music composers today. He has toured and recorded with a wide variety …

Saturday Soundtrack: Mandolin Orange

I first heard the North Carolina folk duo Mandolin Orange at the 2014 Red Wing Roots Music Festival and was instantly smitten. I wrote then that singer-songwriter Andrew Marlin and multi-instrumentalist Emily Frantz “crafted songs that were  simple yet compelling.” Over the years the band has continued to produce warm, intimate music even as they became more widely known and played larger venues such as Red Rocks in Colorado and The Ryman in Nashville. Their most recent studio project, Tides of a Teardrop, debuted at #1 on four different Billboard charts ( Heatseekers, Folk / Americana, Current Country Albums and Bluegrass) with Top 10 entries on 5 additional charts. Clearly, Mandolin Orange has a passionate following. When asked about the band’s unusual name, Emily told an interviewer in 2015, “It’s basically a play on Mandarin Orange, but when we first started playing, Andrew had this little beater, a mandolin that was orange, and I think one day we just sort of thought of that and it stuck.” Let’s begin our look at their music from those earlier years with the …

Chris Stapleton - Traveller

Saturday Soundtrack: The acoustic side of Chris Stapleton

Readers who follow country music know the singer, songwriter, and guitarist Chris Stapleton. But I enjoy seeing those from other genres hearing his “brown liquor” voice for the first time and recognizing both a unique talent and a kindred spirit with whatever type of music they love.* Born into a Kentucky coal-mining family, Stapleton absorbed a variety of musical influences growing up, including from the incomparable Aretha Franklin who he described as “the greatest singer that ever lived.” That tells you right from the beginning that his tastes are excellent and his standards high. Stapleton toiled in the Nashville song-writing business for more than a decade while also fronting one of my favorite bluegrass bands, The SteelDrivers, from 2007 to 2010. In 2015 he broke through as a solo performer with the award-winning album Traveller, was featured at the 2015 CMA Awards show in a breakout live performance with Justin Timberlake, and hasn’t looked back. Stapleton’s voice is a treasure, but his songwriting and guitar playing are also top notch. In this edition of the …

Saturday Soundtrack: Billy Strings

Billy Strings was born William Apostol on October 3, 1992, and grew up listening to his stepfather’s bluegrass music as well as the more broadly popular rock and metal genres. As he started playing music, all those influences come tumbling out of his guitar in ways surprising and often refreshing. His aunt gave him the moniker Billy Strings after recognizing his talent as a multi-instrumentalist. I’d say she hit the nail on the head. In 2016’s Meet Me At the Creek, Strings and his band head off on an extended jam that sounds like bluegrass meeting indie rock. One of the funniest online comments (apropos of nothing) makes the observation: “Forest Gump 3 months into his run on the upright bass…” but the music is great. With this 2017 version of Turmoil and Tinfoil, Strings and his band head off down a path of bluegrass metal music. Two of the best next generation bluegrass guitar players — Strings and Molly Tuttle — play the old chestnut Sittin’ On Top of the World at the 2019 …

Saturday Soundtrack: Sturgill Simpson

Sturgill Simpson is the hard-to-classify, but always intriguing singer and songwriter who sounds like Waylon Jennings or Merle Haggard (take your choice, as both were great singers); writes about topics not often heard on contemporary country radio; has outspoken progressive politics sure to rub many country music fans the wrong way; and who has a gift for surprise…as you’ll find at the end of this post. (Bluegrass fans who can’t wait should just jump there first!) A native of Kentucky, the son of a secretary and a Kentucky State Trooper, Simpson is the first male on his mother’s side of the family to not work in a strip mine or deep mine. Nonetheless, that blue collar, hard working sensibility comes through with every song he writes and every note he sings. He is a Navy veteran who speaks up in his songs and in interviews about the dangers of the military industrial complex. In a famous Facebook Live post outside the 2017 Country Music Association awards show, Simpson said, “Nobody needs a machine gun. Coming …

Saturday Soundtrack: The Old Songs

I’ve found myself drawn to several musical performances online this week during our troubled times. Most are covers — where musicians perform works by other musicians — and while the date of the originals range across centuries, most of the versions that have touched me were recently recorded. While some are instrumentals, knowing the lyrics to the songs has given me a context to hear the music in new ways. I want to share with you a few of my favorites from this music for troubled times. “We’re not doing my original songs,” Rhiannon Giddens says in her recent NPR Tiny Desk (Home) Concert, before she and her partner, Francesco Turrisi, launch into an old spiritual, “’cause with these kinds of emotions, the old songs say it best.” The set list for the 20 minute mini-concert, filmed at Turrisi’s home in Ireland in late May, goes back to “the origins” as Giddens says, and includes Black As Crow, Spiritual, and the tune set Carolina Gals / Last Chance. While all are wonderful, the haunting vocals and …

Saturday Soundtrack: Quarantine Essentials

Eleven years ago I posted a short series on More to Come entitled Five Albums for a Desert Island. It was a way to expand on a Facebook challenge at the time to list your five favorite albums. And while the original posts sound slightly dated, they nonetheless stand up pretty well in describing five albums that have shaped my musical interests. I thought about these albums again in this time of global quarantine. If I had to choose only five albums to have on my live-stream for a long period of sheltering-in-place, how would these do? Well, I think I could more than live with these five…I’d still very much enjoy them! Yes, I would miss not having Nickel Creek‘s self-titled 2000 album to enjoy. (Click the link to read the recent NPR article about the album: “How Nickel Creek made Americana the new Indie Rock.”) And I love The Best of John Hiatt. Nonetheless, with the original five I would not only survive, but would thrive. I’ll encourage you to go back and read the …

Saturday Soundtrack: Hawktail

Hawktail — composed of fiddler Brittany Haas, bassist Paul Kowert, guitarist Jordan Tice, and mandolinist Dominick Leslie — plays some of the most beautiful, complex yet accessible music from the American contemporary acoustic music scene you’ll ever want to hear. After beginning life as a trio, this band’s first album, Unless, was released in 2018, and earlier this year their second offering, entitled Formations, hit the streets. Both are excellent, but in Formations the band really hits its stride. Kowert and Haas are probably the two best-known members of Hawktail, although Tice and Leslie more than carry their musical weight. Kowert is the bassist for The Punch Brothers (with mandolinist Chris Thile, guitarist Chris Eldridge, banjoist Noam Pikelny and violinist Gabe Witcher). A graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, Kowert has also played with David Grisman Quintet (DGQ) alum Mike Marshall and David Rawlings. Haas began touring with DGQ alum Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings at the age of fourteen and at seventeen released her debut, self-titled solo album. Haas continued to tour and record while simultaneously earning …