Instrumental music holds a special place in my heart. I was trained as a classical violist, and my first introduction to bluegrass music was instrumental. I connected with bluegrass’ instruments more than its (human) voices early on as a kid playing “Big Sciota” and “Temperance Reel” and “Hangman’s Reel.” As I picked up the mandolin and later the guitar, that fascination deepened with a growing repertoire of great albums in the 2010s.
These ten are my favorites for a variety of different reasons—technical skill being an important element, but by far not the most critical. An instrumental album has to communicate without the aid of language, and these albums take to that task in different ways. They’re all wonderful, though, and deserve to be enjoyed in full. For now, check out my top ten albums and a selected track from each!
Honorable mentions: Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder’s Instrumentals, Adam Steffey’s New Primitive, Tony Rice’s 58957: The Bluegrass Guitar Collection, Alan Munde’s Festival Favorites Revisited, and Tony Trischka’s Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular.
10. The Bluegrass Fiddle Album, Aubrey Haynie (2003)
Aubrey Haynie is a hardworking fiddler, and I think his praises have gone unsung for too long. Too long, dammit! Haynie had the good fortune of inheriting the well wishes of bonafide bluegrass fiddle god Mark O’Connor, who set him up with a fantastic band for The Bluegrass Fiddle Album, including Tony Rice and Sam Bush. With their support, Haynie lays down some definitive versions of classic fiddle tunes—there is no finer recording of “Bluegrass in the Backwoods” anywhere in existence—with a clean, authoritative style of playing. Although he’s mostly a session player now, Haynie is one of the finest fiddlers in the business. I wish he would make another solo record, because The Bluegrass Fiddle Album is one of the best fiddle showcases ever put to tape.
My favorite track: “Hamilton Breakdown”
9. Heartland: An Appalachian Anthology, Various artists (1996)
“David, you maniac, this is where The Goat Rodeo Sessions are supposed to go because Chris Thile!” Well, dear reader, stick with me for a second. Sessions and Heartland are superficially similar records—they incorporate classical musicians and are, let’s say, progressive. But there are two different types of progressivism at play here: while Sessions is its own new thing (I’ve called that record “meta-folk” before), I think that the Heartland looks back proudly at bluegrass and Appalachian, to polish off the old to make it shine again. This anthology includes works from solo projects by Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor, Mike Marshall, Yo-Yo Ma, and Sam Bush. Would Thile exist without these fellas and the work they did back in the 1990s? Nope. Now go soak this musical masterpiece up like it deserves to be, preferably accompanied by a nice Scotch.
My favorite track: “Short Trip Home”
8. The Harmonic Tone Revealers, John Reischman, Scott Nygaard, and Sharon Gilchrist (2016)
This album shares a lot of the great qualities of the previous entry on this list—an all-star ensemble, a great reinvigoration of classic styles—while still being a completely thematically distinct oeuvre. In Revealers, Reischman and Nygaard and Gilchrist get back to basics, with twin mandolin retellings of old Edden Hammons and Bill Monroe tunes that are crisp and clean while maintaining an immense sense of glee. This album doesn’t reinvent the fiddle tune wheel, but these three musicians sure made the best damn wheel I’ve ever seen in this corner of the bluegrass genre. Try to listen to this album and not crack a huge smile. I dare ya.
My favorite track: “The Road to Malvern”
7. Portraits in Fiddles, Mike Barnett (2017)
Okay, if you couldn’t tell that I love a good team-up, this should put that question to bed. Mike Barnett does the big bluegrass collaboration album right here. It’s not scattershot, random groups of folks playing these tunes; Barnett chose his collaborators based on who would tell the tunes’ stories best. You get that insight from the introductions to each tune from Bryan Sutton, Bobby Hicks, and David Grisman. And you genuinely get the feeling that each tune is a portrait painted by the incredibly talented Barnett, his posse, and their fiddles. There are some bonafide gems on this album, but the choice to include double fiddles on every track was inspired. I’m still rattled that this album didn’t win the Grammy in 2018.
My favorite track: “Waiting on Vassar”
6. Bluegrass Guitar, Bryan Sutton (2006)
Bryan Sutton has become a bluegrass staple over the last twenty years. He helped make Dolly Parton’s amazing bluegrass project, 1999’s The Grass is Blue, the standout album that it is, and has been a worthy replacement for Charles Sawtelle in Hot Rize. Bluegrass Guitar is a tour de force for Sutton, who codified his personal bluegrass signature with this album. He leans into his reassertion that the guitar can be a leading instrument in instrumental bluegrass contexts, tackling challenging tunes like “Whippersnapper” and “Margaret’s Waltz” with such fleetness that you’d think those songs were written for Bryan and his D28. Sure, Tony Rice did the same thing more than four decades ago, but no lead guitarist has embodied that notion any better since. Sutton has gone on to produce innumerable amazing records on his own and with collaborators in the years since Bluegrass Guitar, but no project since has better encapsulated what makes him the best bluegrass guitarist working today.
My favorite track: “The High Road”
5. The David Grisman Quintet, The David Grisman Quintet (1977)
Oh yeah, now we’re cooking with gas. I argue that this album—or maybe just Dawg in 1977—was a huge turning point for bluegrass music. No one in the second generation of bluegrass had cut out on their own like Grisman did with this album, let alone purely instrumentally. The Quintet’s self-titled album beat the Tony Rice Unit to the punch by releasing their debut record a year before Gasology, and it definitely left more of a lasting impression on the genre. Storytime: I lived for Colorado for two years, and that state is quickly becoming a Petri dish for the development of bluegrass. When I lived out there, not only did every single mandolin player sound like they attended the School of Dawg, but “E.M.D.” was the second most-called tune at jams after “Cherokee Shuffle.” (Remember jams? When we played music together in like, rooms? Yeah, me neither.) The David Grisman Quintet was so ahead of its time that “Dawg music” is now an integral part of bluegrass, rather than a tangential offshoot of it. That’s pretty neat, huh?
My favorite track: “Dawg’s Rag”
4. Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe, Noam Pikelny (2013)
Yeehaw partner, look at that big hat on ol’ Noam! When Pickles put on his ten-gallon hat to make Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe (that’s 38 liters for all our readers who use the metric system), he was dead set on doing Kenny Baker proud. He sat down with Baker’s seminal retelling of Bill Monroe’s classic fiddle tunes (AKA Kenny Baker’s classic fiddle tunes) and transcribed them, note-for-note, and then translated them to the banjo. That’s no small feat. But Noam Pikelny does with this album what Bryan Sutton did so successfully with Bluegrass Guitar: he made fiddle tunes so clearly written for the fiddle feel right at home on his instrument. What’s more, Pikelny seemed to pull even more fun from these tunes (with the help of an excellent ensemble) than Bill Monroe ever did. This album is downright fantastic, and it’s become my go-to listen for tunes that have been kicking around for more than sixty years.
My favorite track: “Ashland Breakdown”
3. The Telluride Sessions, Strength in Numbers (1989)
The 1980s were whack. Or so I’ve heard.Ya know who told me? TheTelluride Sessions did. For the uninitiated, Strength in Numbers was the rare supergroup that didn’t include a designated guitar player. Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Mark O’Connor, Sam Bush, and Jerry Douglas were Strength in Numbers for one year and for one album only, although they made a memorable one. The Telluride Sessions represents the product of the infinite creativity shared between these five gentlemen, resulting in music that is funny, ethereal, and challenging. There’s no better way to describe this album than letting it do the talking—check out my favorite track here, although this whole record deserves a listen.
My favorite track: “Blue Men of the Sahara”
2. The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales from the Acoustic Planet Vol. 2, Bela Fleck (1999)
I have found that a lot of ardent bluegrass fans—good, Bill Monroe-fearing bluegrass fans—have never heard of this album. I wish to change that by introducing you to one of the finest instrumental albums (of any genre) ever crafted: Tales from the Acoustic Planet Vol. 2. Despite spending most of the 1980s and 1990s with the Flecktones, Bela Fleck got back to his bluegrass roots with this record featuring the definitive lineup of players. Stuart Duncan on fiddle? Check. Tony Rice on guitar? You bet. Sam Bush on mandolin? Got him. Jerry Douglas on dobro? Heck yeah. Now that’s a party! This album reflects Fleck’s cross-genre ingenuity, unmatched skill on the five-string banjo, and sensitive composition style. This album is long, clocking in at an hour and a quarter; however, no second of it is wasted, nor is any note superfluous. Fleck lets his jazz-influenced banjo style shine through in Tales Vol. 2, all while still making room for more traditional numbers like “Home Sweet Home” and “Foggy Mountain Special,” the latter of which actually features Earl Scruggs. It’d be my favorite instrumental bluegrass album of all time, except…
My favorite track: “Katmandu”
1. Drive, Bela Fleck (1988)
Okay, don’t be mad. But in my book, Bela Fleck actually made the two best instrumental bluegrass albums of all time. He actually pulled a hat trick if you count the Telluride Sessions. But Drive is undeniably the summit of instrumental bluegrass in every way, even more so than Tales from the Acoustic Planet Vol. 2. There’s just no arguing it: you’ve got the same lineup as that album (except Mark O’Connor handled fiddle duties on this record), the most intense tune writing ever in the bluegrass genre, and, uh, oh yeah it’s freakin’ Drive! No instrumental group has been able to top what the year 1988 gave us: the second- to third-generation’s best stewards, at the height of their power, reinventing what bluegrass meant when everyone shut up and let their picks do the talking. O’Connor plays the best fiddle solo ever on “Sanctuary” on this record—I’m not kidding. The best fiddle solo EVER. I think Sam Bush barks at one point? This album just evades description with how good it is. That’s how good Bela Fleck is.
My favorite track: “Slipstream”
Let me know what you think about my selections in the comments section below!