David Royko's (mainly) Bluegrass/Newgrass picks for the
Chicago Tribune, 1993 - 2008
THE PICKS OF '93:
By David Royko
These 10 releases are among the finest
1. Kukuruza: "Crossing Borders" (Sugar Hill). This is an extraordinary bluegrass band that happens to be from
2. Bill Monroe: "Bill Monroe And His
3. Marley's Ghost: "How Can I Keep From Singing" (Sage Arts). Bill Monroe meets Sam Cooke and Buddy Holly. Marley's Ghost is a band that refuses to be classified, mixing country and western, bluegrass, reggae, folk and blues to create a convincing style of its own. Speaking of
4. Kenny Baker: "Master Fiddler" (County). For many, including Bill Monroe, bluegrass fiddling begins and ends with Kenny Baker. Ever since the 1950s, when Baker first joined
5. Hikaru Hasegawa: "Show By Banjo" (Rolling Hills). The notes to this Japanese import say little beyond that Hikaru Hasegawa "played all the instruments," including banjo, synthesizer, electronic-sounding drums, piano, electric guitar, fiddle, and mandolin, with proficiency ranging from good to nearly dazzling. To top it off, he has written most of these tunes, and the diversity is not only impressive, but a bit bizarre. Depending on which track is playing, you might guess you're hearing the Dixie Dregs, Vassar Clements jazz-grass, Bela Fleck, the Residents, Barefoot Jerry, or a traditional bluegrass band. For all its peculiarities, or maybe because of them, this disc is addicting.
7. Claire Lynch: "Friends For A Lifetime" (
8. Muleskinner: "Live: Original Television Soundtrack" (Sierra). This is vintage 1973 progressive bluegrass that is as fresh today as it was then. The supergroup Muleskinner (Bill Keith, Peter Rowan, David Grisman, Richard Greene, Clarence White) recorded only one studio album, making this release all the more valuable.
9. Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka: "Solo Banjo Works" (Rounder). The two kings of avant-garde banjo reassert their positions in the twang hierarchy with a disc of solo performances that defy catagories and set new standards for the old five-string.
10. Mark O'Connor: "Heroes" (Warner Brothers). Only O'Connor would have the guts to go up against everyone from Pinchas Zukerman to Jean Luc Ponty, and on their own turfs. One more bit of evidence that Mark O'Connor is the Michael Jordan of fiddling.
[Photo: Two sets of previously unreleased live recordings by Bill Monroe are among the most important historical issues of recent years.]
THE BEST IN MUSIC IN '94:
Our critics' top 10 records of the year.
By David Royko
Thanks in part to New Country and the "unplugged" trend, 1994 found bluegrass inching closer to mainstream acceptance. Still, if mainstream acceptance is a west-bound cross-country journey, bluegrass has probably made it as far as
1. Chris Thile: "Leading Off" (Sugar Hill). At 13, mandolinist Chris Thile has already produced an instrumental masterpiece. Sure, he has a mountain of technique, but it is his originality as a player and composer that marks him as a future giant, and that future is not very distant.
2. The New Coon Creek Girls: "The L & N Don't Stop Here Anymore" (Pinecastle). These four women sing together with heart-stopping beauty, and play with skill and energetic abandon. And to think that women once were anomalies in the bluegrass world.
3. Various Artists: "The Great Dobro Sessions" (Sugar Hill). Ten of the finest pickers to ever slide up a string are represented here on a disc of 21 newly recorded tracks, and the supporting cast is equally stellar. It was co-produced by the reigning king of dobro mountain, Jerry Douglas, who contributes a stinging version of Weather Report's "Birdland," backed by Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan, Bela Fleck and Sam Bush.
4. New Grass Revival: "Best Of New Grass Revival" (
5. Andy Statman: "Andy's Ramble" (Rounder). Andy Statman's bluegrass mandolin style is unique in its mingling of jazz and Eastern European influences, differing from mentor David Grisman's likeminded approach by embracing the more atonal aspects of jazz. Here, however, he plays it straight on nine excellent originals composed as a tribute to Bill Monroe.
6. Kate MacKenzie: "Let Them Talk" (Red House). Kate MacKenzie is the lead singer for the midwest bluegrass band Stoney Lonesome. For this solo release, she is supported by a cast of
7. The New Tradition: "Old Time Gospel Jamboree" (
9. Bobby Hicks: "
10. Bill Monroe: "The Music Of Bill Monroe from 1936 to 1994" (MCA). If you want to find out what all the fuss is about, here's your chance. This lavishly-packaged four-CD set contains 98 songs played by dozens of distinguished musicians, all held together by the Father Of Bluegrass Music, aka Bill Monroe.
1. Mark Schatz: "Brand New
2. Bluegrass Etc.: "Bluegrass Etc." (Sierra)
3. Gerald Evans & Joe Mullins: "Just A Five-String And A Fiddle" (Rebel)
5. Steve Huber: "Pullin' Time" (Strictly Country)
This was originally posted to the "bgrass-L" newsgroup:
This past Sunday (12/8), the Chicago Tribune had its annual "Top 10 CDs" article in the Sunday Arts section, and yep, once again, yours truly contributed the
Ah, but as the Trib continues trimming its alleged "Arts" [which seems to encompass more and more Television in its definition] coverage, the
Then I get this in my e-mail box from a bgrass-Ler whom I've never met nor even seen before (an admitted lurker he is, and who's lurker status I will respect by not naming his name):
“Hey, I just saw your bg top 5 list on the Tribune's AOL version, and ARE You Nuts? Haven't you heard the latest Del McCoury CD? After all the concert reviews and record reviews where you rave about him, where is he on the list???????”
So, just for the sake of completion, here is the list as it ran, along with the 5 that got lopped. And no, I didn't hear every single bluegrass-related CD that came out this year, but I did hear precisely 304. So, flame me if you will, but for the whole 10, not just 5.
BEST MUSIC OF 1996: Just in time for holiday shopping, it's our music critics' annual look at the best recordings of 1996. Next week they will assess the best box sets of the year.
1. "True Life Blues--The Songs of Bill Monroe," Various Artists (Sugar Hill)
2. "Glamour and Grits," Sam Bush (Sugar Hill)
3. "Across the Grain," Tony Williamson (Plucked String)
5. "The Harvest," Kathy Chiavola (My Label)
7. Special Consensus: Strong Enough to
8. Peter Rowan:
9. Northern Lights: Living In The City (Red House)
10. Richard Greene's Grass Is Greener: Wolves A' Howlin' (Rebel)
So, to my lurker buddy, There's
BEST OF THE Y
1. Jason Carter: "On The Move" (Rounder)
2. Breakaway: "Watershed" (Signature Sound)
3. David West and others: "Pickin' on the Grateful Dead" (
4. Phil Leadbetter: "Philibuster" (Mid-Knight)
5. Aubrey Haynie: "Doin' My Time" (Sugar Hill)
SOUND DECISIONS: Our critics choose the best albums of the year.
1. Bad Livers, "Industry & Thrift" (Suagr Hill)
2. IIIrd Tyme Out, "Live at the MAC" (Rounder)
3. Sam Bush, "Howlin' at the Moon" (Sugar Hill)
4. Missy Raines, "My Place in the Sun" (MR)
5. Butch Baldassari, "New Classics for
A SIMPLE, COMPACT IDEA: Tribune critics pick the year's best music, including box sets.
By David Royko
The '90s found bluegrass as obsessed with preserving its relatively young traditions (the music was only born in the 1940s) as the '70s and '80s were defined by challenging them. This year was relatively low-key for innovations, but that didn't prevent a few iconoclasts from keeping things interesting, even as the traditionalists produced a bumper crop of great music.
1. Bela Fleck, "Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Volume 2: The Bluegrass Sessions" (Warner Bros.): Throughout the '80s, Fleck turned out a stunning series of instrumental progressive bluegrass recordings, but in the '90s, save for occasional appearances and collaborations, steered clear of bluegrass and focused on jazz, fusion and world music. With this extraordinary all-star CD of largely original modern bluegrass instrumentals, he returns, creating some of the best music of his career.
2. Dudley Connell & Don Rigsby, "Meet Me By the Moonlight" (Sugar Hill): Two of bluegrass music's best singers hook up for an album of "brother duets" a la the Louvin or Monroe Brothers. With an emphasis on classic material, the "tradition" is rarely so well served.
3. David Grisman, "Dawg Duos" (Acoustic Disc): Grisman's Acoustic Disc label is also responsible for this year's double-disc "Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza," which falls more within bluegrass orthodoxy, but Dawg Duos wins out for eclecticism. The duets with Fleck, Mark O'Connor, Bryan Bowers, Vassar Clements, Edgar Meyer and Mike Seeger all connect, at least tangentially, to bluegrass, but wildcards such as drummer Hal Blaine, accordionist Jim Boggio, percussionist Zakir Hussain and pianist Denny Zeitlin provide an even greater diversity of sounds and foils for Grisman.
4. Jeanette Williams, "Cherry Blossoms in the Springtime" (Doobie Shea): Williams is a singer who reconciles contradictions. Her sound is a blend of confidence and vulnerability, of tart and sweet, and of fluidity and a mildly edgy twang. Behind her are some of the music's best players, including Craig Smith, Rob Ickes and Aubrey Haynie, delivering songs that perfectly fit the singer's voice and approach.
5. Rob Ickes, "Slide City" (Rounder): The International Bluegrass Music Association's current favorite dobro player's latest solo disc finds him exploring jazz and blues, sliding through numbers such as Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" and Miles Davis' "New Blues."
6. Teagrass, "Moravian Love Songs" (G-Music): Czech mandolinist Jiri Plocek's "Teagrass" group has, across three CDs, grafted modern bluegrass to Eastern European folk forms. "Moravian Love Songs" picks up where group's mesmerizing 1995 instrumental CD, "Eastbound," left off, this time bringing compelling, idiomatic vocals into their unique sound. Is it Newgrass music or is it World Music? The answer is, yes. (It also is hard to find without this e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org).
7. Darol Anger-Mike Marshall Band, "Jam" (Compass): This pair released another fine disc this year as part of the Newgrange group, and that one is more bluegrassy than "Jam." But "Jam" gets the edge for capturing the manic energy and experimentalism that defines bluegrass, even as their jazzy sound, which includes drums, veers far from tradition.
8. Ron Spears, "My Time Has Come" (Copper Creek): Known more for his songs, Ron Spears can perform his own tunes with a natural, warm and soulful sound that also contains a hint of humor. It is always interesting to hear what a respected composer can do with his or her own material, and in Spears' case, the results go well beyond satisfied curiosity.
9. Bluegrass Etc., "Home Is Where the Heart Is" (Tricopolis): Banjoist Dennis Caplinger, guitarist Curtis Jones and mandolinist/vocalist John Moore are three of bluegrass music's best players; yet somehow they do not get the attention they should. Their brand of playing and arranging is some of the most creative -- and visceral -- in bluegrass.
10. Dolly Parton, "The Grass Is Blue" (Sugar Hill/Blue Eye): In recent interviews, Parton has stated that she is at a point in her career where she has the power to do whatever the heck she wants, and bluegrass is what she wants to do. She also says that being in the studio with these musicians (including Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan) left her in awe. The first 30 seconds of this disc is all one needs to hear why.
PACKAGE DEAL: THE BEST OFFERINGS IN BOX SETS
THE PICKS IN DISCS FOR 2000:
Not since the 1980s -- a golden age of sorts for newgrass and new acoustic pickers' projects -- has a single year yielded so many exceptional recordings by instrumentalists. The hardest to find should be available through bluegrass specialist outlets, such as
1. Aubrey Haynie, "A Man Must Carry On" (Sugar Hill): With a tone as fat as it is refined, Aubrey Haynie's fiddling has become a frequent, if often anonymous, ingredient in country sessions produced in
2. Dan Tyminski, "Carry Me Across the Mountain" (Doobie Shea): Dan Tyminski was chosen by the Coen brothers to be George Clooney's singing voice for their upcoming movie, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Smart move. The Coens' appreciation of Tyminski's earthy power is shared by his regular employer, Alison Krauss, who lends support to this deeply satisfying album.
3. Alison Brown, "Fair Weather" (Compass): Like fellow five-string banjo picker Bela Fleck, Alison Brown seems to be most at home playing jazz -- except when she's performing bluegrass, as she does on "Fair Weather," reasserting her expertise in the
4. Herschel Sizemore, "My Style" (Hay Holler): There can be no doubt where mandolinist Herschel Sizemore's sympathies lie. His tone, touch and composing are the definition of traditional bluegrass, but his sound is his own. Sizemore's notes, especially when he ventures into the mandolin's upper register, ring like miniature church bells, while his rhythmic zest hints at the core of bluegrass music's ancestral roots in country dance forms. The majority of songs on "My Style" are originals, his melodic gifts as apparent in his writing as they are in his improvising.
5. Special Consensus, "25th Anniversary" (Pinecastle): Yes, Special Consensus may be
6. Bob Black, "Banjoy" (
7. Allen Watkins, "Battleground" (Battleground): Dark suspicions were raised by two facts about Allen Watkins' "Battleground" CD -- first, that it has a theme, in this case, the Civil War, which could have meant that the music would be forced into a premise; and that Watkins plays virtually all of the instruments himself, which can result in weak links. So much for presumptions. This is a tour de force of writing and playing. The emphasis is on instrumentals, and Watkins is comfortable floating between the bluegrass and new acoustic camps.
9. Scott Vestal, "Millennia" (Pinecastle): Bill Monroe might have approved of "Millennia," as long as nobody called this music any kind of "grass." But progressive banjoist Scott Vestal's pedigree includes stints with some of the best bluegrass band leaders in history, and even with tunes such as "Long Distance Runaround" (yes, by Yes, sung here by John Cowan), some Mozart, and plenty of modern originals, Vestal's roots always seem to peek out from just below the surface. To hear Vestal tear up bluegrass standards, try the equally impressive "Bluegrass 2000" project, on the same record label.
10. Various artists, "The AcuTab Sessions" (Rebel): AcuTab is a company that publishes music transcription books for those who want to learn how their heroes do what they do. The underlying concept for this disc is to showcase these virtuosi. The results are exquisite. From duos to full ensembles, instrumentals to vocals, the creativity of the combinations and the sparks that result make this a must-have for the hard-core fan as well as a terrific entry point for the curious and newly smitten.
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
By David Royko
1. CHRIS THILE: Not All Who Wander Are Lost (Sugar Hill). Mandolinist Chris Thile's third album is a masterpiece so breathtaking, it must be ranked among the 10 best progressive bluegrass instrumental projects of all time. His composing and arranging are at once complex and accessible, his flair for melody equaled by an exceptional gift for improvising, while every track, even the most reflective, is imbued with a joyous sense of celebration. His collaborators, including Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Edgar Meyer, and members of Thile's band Nickel Creek, are the type of like-minded innovators required to do his compositions justice, and are among the very few who are in his class as instrumentalists. Thile, all of 20 years old, has produced one for the ages.
2. THE WAYFARING
3. DEL MCCOURY BAND:
4. RALPH STANLEY AND FRIENDS:
5. TONY WILLIAMSON AND THE WILLIAMSON BROTHERS BAND: Still Light of the Evening (Mapleshade/Wildchild). Look no further than the Williams Brothers for a lesson on precisely what makes brother duets so unique. The two men--Tony and Gary--sing as one while maintaining their own individual sounds, and make it seem easy. Brother Tony also is among the finest mandolinists alive, and the instrumental passages, featuring an excellent band assembled for this session, dazzle without ever lapsing into flashiness. This is great music hiding behind genuine humility.
6. CHARLES SAWTELLE: Music from Rancho deVille (Acoustic Disc). Charles Sawtelle, best known for his work with Hot Rize, died of leukemia in 1999, but not before completing most of this album even as he battled through the final years of his illness. Though a few gaps were later filled in by his musical friends, the disc feels like a finished project, not a collection of scraps, and encompasses Sawtelle's wide range of tastes, from bluegrass through Tex-Mex, blues, old-time, and Cajun. The roster is impressive and reads like an acoustic who's who with the likes of David Grisman, Pete Wernick, Flaco Jimenez, Todd Phillips, Tim and Mollie O'Brien, Norman Blake, Michael Doucet, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Peter Rowan, Richard Greene, Vassar Clements, and Darol Anger. "Angel Band," which closes the disc on a serene and hymn-like note, features a chorus of close friends and colleagues, providing a fitting memorial to a big musical personality.
7. SCOTT VESTAL, WAYNE BENSON, JOHN COWAN, RANDY KOHRS, JIM VANCLEVE: Bluegrass 2001 (Pinecastle). For seven straight years now, the fiercely out-there banjoist Scott Vestal has assembled a band of ace pickers for instrumental workouts, usually of bluegrass classics. This year, however, the majority of the cuts are original pieces by Vestal and his fellow players, which was just the injection this excellent series (
8. RHONDA VINCENT: The Storm Still Rages (Rounder). A professional since she was a child with the family band "The Sally Mountain Show," Rhonda Vincent's profile is finally matching her talent. The International Bluegrass Music Association gave her the 2001 awards for Entertainer of the Year and Female Vocalist, the latter for the second straight year, though many would argue that the "female" part of the award is unnecessary--she belts out bluegrass as well as anyone, and better than most. Vincent also is a fine mandolinist, and her musicians match her fire, while the choice of tunes, mixing old with the new, showcases Vincent's pipes like a diamond in a perfect setting.
10. DALE ANN BRADLEY:
[Photo: Tony Williamson, among the finest mandolinists alive, dazzles without flashiness.]
[Arts & Entertainment front page photo: The Year's Best: Recordings. Music Masters of 2001: The Recordings of Choice, from Dylans 'Love and Theft' to Loveless' 'Mountain Soul.'
[Chicago Tribune front page caption: Arts & Entertainment: Our Music Critics Choose The Best. From rock (Bob Dylan) to country (Patty Loveless) and from latin (El Gran Silencio) to bluegrass (Chris Thile), here are the CDs you need to hear.]
Best CDs of 2002
ALISON KRAUSS `LIVE' PROVIDES WHISPERS AND WAILS
By David Royko
1. Alison Krauss & Union Station, "Live" (Rounder). This is the album to get if you have never heard Krauss and her band, which features dobro king Jerry Douglas. This double-disc set includes several tracks not available on other AKUS albums (including Soggy Bottom Dan Tyminski singing his now-signature "Man of Constant Sorrow"), and presents Krauss and the group in their free-range glory, from her whispers-in-the-shadows delicacy to aggressive, full-tilt bluegrass.
2. Nickel Creek, "This Side" (Sugar Hill). Are they bluegrass? The same question dogged New Grass Revival 30 years ago, and in the end, who cares? With Chris Thile's mandolin leading the way, Nickel Creek is the new standard for acoustic string music, and "This Side" is as close to a "statement" as the New Acoustic Music scene has produced in a generation.
3. Mark Johnson/Emory Lester, "Acoustic Campaign" (Bangtown). Mark Johnson gooses the pre-Scruggs, pre-bluegrass clawhammer-style banjo into the present by channeling contemporary composing through antique techniques. Mandolinist/guitarist Emory Lester is one of those unsung, creative progressive pickers that musicians lionize. Together, they make music at once new, comfortingly familiar and always engaging.
4. Buddy Greene, "Rufus" (Rufus Music). Singer, guitarist and harmonica man Buddy Greene has a style that combines friendly informality with an energized, whipcrack precision. With all-star help from the likes of Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Chuck Leavell, Greene manages to make tunes such as "Sally Goodin," "All My Loving," and "Deep River Blues" -- warhorses from disparate genres -- sound like new.
5. Special Consensus, "Route 10" (Pinecastle). After nearly three decades, Greg Cahill, banjoist/leader of Special C, continues to alchemize turnover into a secret weapon. It always seems that whatever the current lineup, it's the best yet, and with Josh Williams and Jamie Clifton on board for their latest album, this version of the band just might be, well, the best yet.
6. Kathy Chiavola, "From Where I Stand" (My Label). The first track, "Goin Away Party," is a remarkable duet with singer/guitarist Chiavola and the dedicatee of this memorial tribute, her late partner, fiddler Randy Howard. If you make it through with dry eyes (or even if you don't), the reward is a full disc offering a bounty of styles, all enveloped by Chiavola's peerless pipes.
7. The Waybacks, "Burger After Church" (Fiddling Cricket). A near-ideal balance of irreverence, chops, discipline, and originality separate the Waybacks from many bands that share their "jamgrass" audience.
9. Big Country
10. The Crooked Jades, "Unfortunate Rake" (Copper Creek). Old-time string music that might appeal as much to the pierced generation as to their great grandparents, the Crooked Jades are a band of West Coast pickers with equal parts attitude and respect. They transform a form of music that thrives on energy by replacing the coal with musical nukes, along the way evoking the music's original purpose by making the listener want to get up and dance.
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT
BOUNTIFUL YEAR FOR VETERANS, NEWCOMERS
By David Royko
Special to the Tribune
The year 2003 turned out to be an exceptionally bountiful year for outstanding instrumental albums, from veterans as well as young ’uns from both traditional bluegrass and the outer orbits of the newgrass galaxy.
1. SAM BUSH & DAVID GRISMAN: Hold On We're Strummin' (Acoustic Disc)
What could have been a loose, informal jamming project instead turns out to be a treasure trove of new, tightly arranged compositions by newgrass music’s two most important pioneers. Several cuts are unaccompanied duos, the rest include a full band back-up, while a few fragments of longer jams serve as petite palette cleansers between the main courses. The opening cut, “
Another album by two mandolin monsters, “Into The Cauldron” could be a roadmap for the instrument’s future. On purely technical terms, Thile’s and Marshall’s only real peers are each other, while their composing and improvising are so intriguing yet soulful as to render this album recommendable as pure music and not simply an orgy for mandolin fanatics.
3. DEL McCOURY BAND: It's Just the Night (McCoury Music)
McCoury and his group have released so many superb albums over the years that it would be tempting to consider them all of a piece, but “It's Just the Night,” like most of the albums that have preceded it, has its own distinctive profile. His bandmates, which include super-picker sons Ronnie and Robbie, keep bringing papa
4. MARK O'CONNOR: Thirty Year Retrospective (OMAC)
Recorded in concert, violinist O’Connor surveyed his past by assembling a magnificent “string quartet” of mandolinist Chris Thile (of Nickel Creek), guitarist Bryan Sutton and bassist Byron House to help him reveal the very best of each of his compositions. Several pieces, such as "Stone from which the Arch was Made," improve upon their original versions, with the new arrangements and instrumentation working better than some of the original production decisions O’Connor made in his post-Rounder, early Warner Bros. days.
5. KARL SHIFLETT & BIG COUN
Karl Shiflett’s music is pure fun, delivered with humor and a sense of style that harkens back to an earlier era. Even if their entertainment value is as high as their pretense is low, these are fine musicians with an uncanny sense for the perfect balance between “aw shucks” and serious artistry.
6. ANDY LEFTWICH: Ride (Skaggs Family)
A Ricky Skaggs discovery, and now a member of Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder, fiddler/mandolinist Leftwich straddles the fence between straight bluegrass and progressive picking, with his writing and arranging merging the two ends of the spectrum with a seamless sense of “rightness.” At the core of his vast technique is a glistening tone not unlike that of his colleague of similar youth, Chris Thile.
Team Flathead is a tag-team of top rank banjoists--Sammy Shelor, Jim Mills, Ron Stewart, Steve Huber and John Lawless—each delivering a couple of tunes, the net result being some of the best straight bluegrass banjo picking on disc. What’s more, the spectacular audiophile sound allows one to bathe in the instruments’ hard-edged sensuality.
8. WHITEHOUSE: WhiteHouse (Pinecastle)
A bluegrass supergroup with a difference, WhiteHouse features Larry Stephenson, David Parmley, Missy Raines, Jason Carter and Charlie Cushman. It is striking how much this cherry-picked ensemble of individuals from various top bands sounds like a working unit. That cohesiveness lends the warhorse-heavy program a wallop that all-star aggregates rarely achieve.
9. ALLEN WATKINS: Light of the Crescent Moon (Battleground Music)
An alumnus of the Front Porch String Band and the Lonesome River Band, Watkins’ most recent solo album is a collection of distinctive original pieces for banjo, grafting often fiendishly tricky passages to rich, infectious melody. His is a major talent deserving far wider recognition.
10. KATSUYUKI MIYAZAKI: Mandoscape (Red Clay)
Miyazaki released an appealing instrumental CD in 1996 (Man-O-Mandolin), but both in terms of playing as well as writing, his latest far surpasses the earlier disc. Assembling a cast of versatile players, including the intensely creative banjoist Scott Vestal, fat-toned fiddler Aubrey Haynie, and the brilliant guitarist David Grier,
[Photo: Sam Bush & David Grisman--Hold On We're Strummin'; Photo: Jason Carter of the Del McCoury Band, the most progressive of "traditional" bluegrass groups.]
Arts & Entertainment
Special to the Tribune
That every one of these CDs comes from an independent label drives home the fact that bluegrass, from the most hard-core traditional to the corners of newgrass, was an “alternative” music genre long before “alt” became a marketing niche. Even though the music’s visibility has grown tremendously since the bluegrass-related “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack became a surprise hit—the big guns at Sony have even issued an impressive but flawed 4 CD bluegrass anthology: “Can't You Hear Me Callin’”--most of the action of the bluegrass scene is still documented by indi labels, and beautifully so.
1. RICKY SKAGGS &
When Skaggs left commercial country and re-entered the bluegrass world 8 years ago, he did it via the songs of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers, in the process introducing many listeners to the classic cannon while creating some of the best music of his career. These days, as displayed on Brand New Strings, Skaggs is applying the stunning bluegrass talents of his Kentucky Thunder group to fresh material, proving that there is still plenty to do within the world of “traditional” bluegrass.
The mid-‘60s recordings singer/guitarist Red Allen made for the independent labels Rebel, Melodeon and County stand as true bluegrass classics, as direct in their raw, emotional expression as they are dazzling for the instrumental backing. While the latter disc includes early performances by future stars Richard Greene and David Grisman, some of the best music is to be found on the first CD, courtesy of the iconoclastic mandolinist Frank Wakefield.
3. DEMOLITION STRING BAND: Where the Wild, Wild Flowers Grow—The Songs of Ola Belle Reed (Okra-Tone)
When Demolition String Band’s lead singer Elena Skye first heard Ola Belle Reed’s own recording of her classic song, “High on a Mountain,” a decade ago, it lead to what might be described as an obsession. This disc is the result, a beautiful tribute to the
4. ALISON KRAUSS & UNION STATION: Lonely Runs Both Ways (Rounder)
Another Alison Krauss album, and another top 10 pick. How does she do it? For one thing, Krauss seems to wait until she has an album’s worth of winners before she enters the studio, her non-doctrinaire tastes drawing from any and all sources, including the finest songwriter in Union Station, banjoist Ron Block. There is, of course, Krauss’ voice, which can be both whispery yet potent at the same time. Finally, it also helps to have an exceptional band, with dobro giant Jerry Douglas front and center while sharing the spotlight on his instrumental, “Unionhouse Branch.”
5. NOAM PIKELNY: In the Maze (Compass)
After stints with Czech guitar virtuoso Slavek Hanzlik and the defunct jamband juggernaut Leftover Salmon, banjoist Noam Pikelny, a native of the
6. THE BISCUIT BURNERS: Fiery Mountain Music (Indidog)
The Biscuit Burners somehow sound relaxed even on fast numbers like “Mountain Lily” or their up-tempo instrumental, “Autry’s Apple Orchard,” and when they get into a slower ballad, their sound becomes downright hypnotic. Part of this can be attributed to the cohesive, seamless profile the band achieves—it seems so effortless. But it is the super-sultry singing of Shannon Whitworth on songs like her own “Come On Darlin’” that casts the strongest spell.
7. ANDREW COLLINS & MARC ROY: Likewise (sytesounds)
These two progressive pickers, mandolinist Collins, of The Creaking Tree String Quartet, and guitarist Roy, of the Emory Lester Set, have crafted a set of thoughtful original instrumentals that, while providing effective launching pads for creative improvising, stand up nicely as compositions. The pair are more focused on musical ideas than on showing off their impressive chops, though on numbers like the lively “Get Outta Hogtown,” they leave no stone unturned when virtuosity is called for.
Stuart Duncan’s moaning fiddle solo on “Sitting On Top Of The World” is only one highlight of an album celebrating their 20-year anniversary, but it exemplifies much of what makes the Nashville Bluegrass Band special. Rarely flashy even though they could be--mandolinist Mike Compton in particular--the NBB chooses instead to go for taste and a soulful yet slightly restrained delivery that reminds listeners of the place blues had in the birth of bluegrass. The vocals of Alan O'Bryant and Pat Enright remain a marvel, even more so since the band’s collaborations with the Fairfield Four, whose influence is stark on the gospel track, “Hush.”
9. DANNY ROBERTS: Mandolin Orchard (Butler Music Group)
Danny Roberts is best known for his two decades with the New Tradition and is now a member of the freshly-minted, all-bluegrass-veteran group, The Grascals, a.k.a. Dolly Parton’s band. Since he is hardly a newcomer, the extraordinary artistry of “Mandolin Orchard” shouldn’t have brought about an aural double-take, but bluegrass instrumental albums this tasty don’t appear very often. From the hardcore ‘grass of the opening track, “AndiWayne,” through the jazzy twists of “O.A.I.,” Roberts hits one home run after another.
10. VARIOUS ARTISTS: All-Star
The soundtrack album from the PBS TV concert (there’s also a DVD available with additional material), this is a fine snapshot of the state of bluegrass today. The music’s outskirts are covered by Nickel Creek as well as bluegrass fan Bruce Hornsby, whose piano could be considered the ultimate interloper. But the modern bluegrass mainstream is well represented by, among others, Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, and Del McCoury, with Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs providing the first generation bookends.
Ultimate iPod Playlist Pick: The Biscuit Burners: Come On Darlin'. On the song's choruses, the sultry tang of Shannon Whitworth's vocals contrast deliciously with the twangy humor of the dobro's stuttering responses.
Arts & Entertainment
THE YEAR’S BEST: RECORDINGS
Our Writers’ Top Albums by Genre
PAST MEETS FUTURE IN BALANCING ACT
By David Royko
Special to the Tribune
1. New Grass Revival: Grass Roots: The Best of New Grass Revival (Capitol, 2 discs)
By the time they wrapped up their 18-year run in 1989, New Grass Revival had become a supergroup featuring Sam Bush, Pat Flynn, John Cowan, and Bela Fleck. That lineup certainly justifies the now-standard appellation of “legendary,” but this set succeeds in tracing the history of NGR from their shaggy-haired, revolutionary origins of the early ‘70s that featured the 20-year-old phenom—and co-founder—Bush, through to the group’s final concert. A generous and revealing dose of previously unissued studio and live tracks mingle with selections from each of their studio releases, making this a must-have for hard-core collectors as well as newbie New Grassers.
2. Jamie Hartford: Part of Your History—The Songs of John Hartford (New Sheriff)
Jamie Hartford gathered together a clutch of his father’s friends and favorite collaborators for this tribute to the unique musician who died in 2001. Even if one chooses to ignore the extra-musical elements, from a purely musical standpoint, the results are nearly magical, with musicians including Vassar Clements, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, David Grisman, Nanci Griffith, Tim O'Brien, Ronnie McCoury, Norman Blake, and Emmylou Harris delivering peak performances for their departed old buddy.
3. Psychograss: Now Hear This (Adventure Music
The only problem with Psychograss is that these guys don’t record more often. This quintet is responsible for some of the finest New Acoustic Music (the progressive, instrumental branch of the bluegrass tree) of the past decade, yet this is only their third release. Now Hear This proves once again that, when it comes to creating music that is simultaneously complex and challenging yet accessible and instantly appealing, Psychograss satisfies.
4. Kenny & Amanda Smith Band: Always Never Enough (Rebel)
The K&ASB includes two of the finest players in bluegrass—guitarist Kenny Smith and banjoist Steve Huber—and though this group can easily dazzle with their chops, the emphasis here is the songs and putting them across with an ear always bent toward beauty of sound. And though the band never forsakes drive, when Amanda Smith is singing, bluegrass doesn’t come much more beautiful.
5. Peter Feldmann: Grey Cat on the
6. Andy Statman: Flatbush Waltz (Rounder Archive)
One of the true masterpieces from Rounder’s first decade, this 1980 jazz-klezmer-worldgrass album is among the inaugural releases on the label’s Archive series, available as a download or as a mail-order CD. The one-of-a-kind Statman fuses the cross-picking of Jesse McReynolds with the atonal jabs of Albert Ayler, embodying like no other mandolinist jazz’s "sound of surprise."
8. Various Artists: Telluride
The Telluride Festival has always stretched the boundaries of the definition of bluegrass to, or maybe past, the breaking point, but with music as good as this--from Hot Rize and Sam Bush to Nickel Creek and the Horseflies--who cares?
9. Various Artists: Clawhammer Banjo, Volumes 1-3 (County, 3 discs)
Three discs (available separately) of mainly solo, instrumental banjo might seem like overkill, but there is something special about this collection, most of which was recorded from 1965 to 1971. Clawhammer style is the precursor to the 5-string bluegrass picking that is now, for most people, synonymous with the instrument, but the older manner holds a power that has had a direct influence on performers as diverse as traditional bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley and Mark Johnson’s innovative “Clawgrass” projects.
10. Jesse McReynolds & Charles Whitstein: A Tribute to Brother Duets (Pinecastle)
Charles Whitstein and Jesse McReynold’s each lost the other half of their respective brother duets in 2001 and 2002, and instead of joining together simply to pay musical tribute to their brothers, they have widened the net to salute fellow brethren such as the Stanleys, Delmores, Louvins, Monroes, and the Blue Sky Boys. The music is extraordinary in its beauty and the emotional involvement of these veterans.
Newcomers don't play second fiddle to the genre's traditionalists
By David Royko
Special to the Tribune
1. Chris Thile: "How To Grow a Woman From the Ground" (Sugar Hill)
After wandering ever further from bluegrass with Nickel Creek and his own solo albums over the past decade, mandolinist/singer Thile charges back to home base with a modernist bluegrass grand slam. Strutting their stuff with the boss is Thile's cherry-picked crop of like-aged (mid-20s) acoustic virtuosi, including local boys Greg Garrison on bass and Noam Pikelny on banjo.
2. Dale Ann Bradley: "Catch Tomorrow" (Compass)
A voice that ranks with the very best women of bluegrass, Bradley's has a slightly darker tone -- softened by a plush, breathy cushion -- than Alison Krauss or Rhonda Vincent, and she applies it with force and impressive expressive range. Backed by a crack crew of sidemen, Bradley's bluegrass is, as Bill Monroe might have said, powerful music.
3. Michael Cleveland: "Let 'er Go, Boys!" (Rounder)
Another of the young guns and already an alumnus of the bands of Dale Ann Bradley and Rhonda Vincent, twentysomething fiddler
4. Jim Van Cleve: "No Apologies" (Rural Rhythm)
Fiddler for the bluegrass band Mountain Heart, 26-year-old Van Cleve's solo debut packs a wallop, delivering distinctive modern bluegrass that yanks tradition into the kids' playhouse for some musical roughhousing. The instrumental contributions of guitarists Clay Jones and Byron House, mandolinist Adam Steffey, banjoist Ron Stewart and dobroist Rob Ickes each deserve mention for helping make "No Apologies" so tasty.
6. Sam Bush: "Laps in Seven" (Sugar Hill)
Somehow, Bush has not only maintained the cyclonic energy and drive that ignited newgrass music when he was barely out of high school in the early 1970s, but he is, if anything, more creative now. From instrumentals such as his own "The Dolphin Dance" and Jean Luc Ponty's "New Country," with Ponty as guest, to John Hartford's cockeyed "On the Road" and the blistering bluegrass of "Bringing in the Georgia Mail," the King of newgrass has, once again, made a great record.
8. Curly Seckler: "
A professional musician since 1935, Seckler is part of bluegrass music's first generation, his greatest fame coming with the greatest years of Flatt & Scruggs, from the late '40s to the early '60s, for whom he provided both mandolin and vocals. His fabled tenor voice, while certainly aged, has retained every ounce of its engaging personality, and first-rate pickers such as Herschel Sizemore and Larry Perkins help their star shine.
9. Mike Compton & David Long: "Stomp" (Acoustic Disc)
10. Jimmy Arnold: Riding "With Ol' Mosby" (Rebel)
With a life wild enough to prove that truth can be stranger than fiction,
Best of 2007: MUSIC
This year we asked our contributing music writers to name their five favorite albums of the year, and we encouraged them to look to multiple genres.
By David Royko
1. TONY TRISCHKA
Bela Fleck and Earl Scruggs are just two of the eight banjo gods joining Tony Trischka for his best recording since 1983’s “Robot Plane Flies Over Arkansas” album, backed by a slew of additional string deities like mandolinists Sam Bush and Chris Thile.
MY LAST DAYS ON EARTH
(4 CD boxed set; Bear Family)
Covering his final decade or so, and containing some of his greatest instrumental compositions, Bear Family concludes the most important reissue series in bluegrass history--the complete studio (and some live) recordings led by Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass.
3. CHICK COREA AND BELA FLECK
State of the art prog rock that most frequently brings middle-period King Crimson to mind, Battles is a powerhouse quartet that mixes minimalist repetition with odd time signatures, darkly impressionistic soundscapes, and quirky, fever-dream vocals, the last delivered by guitarist Tyondai (son of avant garde jazz legend Anthony) Braxton.
5. MALCOM ARNOLD
ENGLISH, IRISH, SCOTTISH, AND CORNISH DANCES:
One of this year’s happiest classical stories has been the CD resurrection of the British Lyrita label, and even if Malcom Arnold is not as obscure as many of the composers Lyrita has illuminated, these delightful miniatures have never sounded better than in these exquisitely recorded definitive performances.
Arts & Entertainment
Best Music of the Year 2008
Top Five CDs
By David Royko
Influenced by classical forms, the Sparrow Quartet's gorgeous yet sophisticated Mozartian aesthetic offers a striking contrast to the Beethovenian sturm und drang of Chris Thile's Punch Brothers.1. ABIGAIL WASHBURN & THE SPARROW QUARTET
2. PUNCH BROTHERS: PUNCH
Thile and his band of young acoustic string wizards apply abstract lyrics to music as demanding as Newgrass gets. Their breathtaking virtuosity isn't about soloing but complex ensemble unity, with a cumulative power that leaves the listener pleasantly rung out.
3. CORBETT, CHRISMAN and TICE
Simon Chrisman's hammered dulcimer, usually a folk instrument, lends this modern trio a distinctive tang. Banjoist Wes Corbett and guitarist Jordan Tice are also of the new generation of acoustic string players, all three composing melodic, concise and joyfully engaging music.
4. RALPH STANLEY: OLD-TIME PICKIN'--A CLAWHAMMER BANJO COLLECTION
5. BELA FLECK & THE FLECKTONES: JINGLE ALL THE WAY
Fleck returns to his first label, Rounder, for a rarity--a holiday album that transcends the genre. The Tuvan Alash Ensemble, bassist and MacArthur "Genius" Edgar Meyer, and mandolin/clarinet iconoclast Andy Statman join the Flecktones for a wild and wooly jaunt through a winter hinterland, including a "12 Days of Christmas" that matches each day with its appropriate time signature, an archetypal Flecktones touch.