David Chernack’s Top Ten Favorite Bluegrass Albums (since 2015)

It’s a wild time to be a bluegrass fan.

The Infamous Stringdusters at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival

Since 2000, bluegrass has seen a resurgence in popularity due to a bunch of factors. The two factors I consider to be the most critical to this resurgence are the Coen Brothers’ folk epic film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) and Dolly Parton’s 1999 bluegrass album The Grass is Blue (my third favorite bluegrass album of all time!). The former was nominated for two Oscars and the latter won a Grammy. This album and movie combo thrust bluegrass back into the public view in the bluegrass genre’s greatest period of cultural relevance since the 1950s.

The initial momentum from the early 2000s has led to huge changes in the genre over the past twenty years. A newer, younger generation of bluegrass musicians has emerged, supported by the old guard of third-generation bluegrassers who continue to produce traditional bluegrass music. They grew up listening to Dan Tyminski, Sam Bush, and Alison Krauss, and now they perform alongside those bluegrass heroes onstage. The last five years’ crop of projects, in particular, represent a cornucopia of both reverence for bluegrass’s storied past as well as a representation of its bright future under the stewardship of today’s best bluegrass artists.

With that in mind, here’s a list of my ten favorite bluegrass albums released since 2015!

(Honorable mentions: Bobby Osborne’s Original, Darrell Webb Band’s Lover’s Leap, Molly Tuttle’s Rise, The Earls of Leicester’s Rattle & Roar, and Bryan Sutton’s The More I Learn. It’s a wild time to be a bluegrass fan, folks.)

10. Silence in These Walls, Flatt Lonesome (2017)

A young, six-member group with deep family ties, Flatt Lonesome has been on the scene for about a decade. They found their groove with their 2015 release Runaway Train, but I think that Silence in These Walls is an even better showcase of what this group is about: emotionally wrenching songwriting, creative instrumentals, and vocals tighter than a chicken truck through a tunnel. And these guys didn’t put “lonesome” in their name for nothin’. This is one of the few bands that can make me cry.

My favorite track: “Where Do You Go”

 

9. Radio, Steep Canyon Rangers (2015)

With a long discography stretching across two decades, it’s not hard to track how the Steep Canyon Rangers’ sound developed. Growing more progressive and creative with each additional album—and with the addition of percussionist Michael Ashworth in 2013—the Asheville-based band developed from a fairly straight-edged bluegrass act to one of the genre’s leading vanguards. The band’s songwriting is sharp, passionate, hilarious (perhaps a side effect of their storied relationship with Steve Martin), and deeply American. Radio makes this list because it represents a pinnacle in the group’s lyrical and instrumental prowess, although 2019’s Out in the Open is developing into one of my favorites as well.

My favorite track: “Blue Velvet Rain”

 

8. Laws of Gravity, The Infamous Stringdusters (2017)

The ‘Dusters have seen a lot of personnel changes in their time, but I think there’s no better combo than this group’s current lineup, featuring Andy Falco and Andy Hall. This group, perhaps more than any other on this list, has forged a path forward into new territory for bluegrass. Their influences are very clear in Laws of Gravity, with songs pulling from jazz and jam-band funk traditions while maintaining an undeniably bluegrass sound. While bands like [REDACTED] go a little too far off-script to even be recognizable as bluegrass, the Infamous Stringdusters make no compromises about their bluegrass-ness. I have no doubt they’ll continue to influence—and be influenced by—the genre in the future.

My favorite track: “1901: A Canyon Odyssey”

 

7. Mountain Voodoo, Balsam Range (2016)

Ah yes, Balsam Range. Do they have the best vocals of any traditional bluegrass band performing today? Maybe. Is Buddy Melton the best bluegrass tenor in the business? A little less maybe, a little more definitely. This band is undeniably one of the most traditionally influenced groups taking the stage today, but their sound as an ensemble is so distinctive that perhaps “metatraditional” would be a more accurate moniker. They’re always looking over their shoulder, back to North Carolina, remembering the stories that bluegrass listeners need to be told through their songs. Mountain Voodoo mixes Balsam Range’s best elements—storytelling-like lyrics, plenty of slow numbers, and lots of stuff in the key of B—and may be their best album to date.

My favorite track: “I Hear the Mountains”

 

6. Horse County, Jordan Tice (2016)

Okay, full disclosure: I had no idea who Jordan Tice was until I saw him performing on the Catskill stage at Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, hot off the release of Horse County. But when I saw him on-stage with Dominick Leslie and Mike Witcher, I knew he was something special. Tice is now one-quarter of the modern bluegrass supergroup Hawktail, but his songwriting and playful guitar stylings shine brightest through this solo venture. He’s not your pappy’s bluegrass guitar player—and he doesn’t need to be. His lower voice is unorthodox for a bluegrass leading man, but his songwriting would like to convince you otherwise. Everything about this album just works, despite how many conventions it stretches in terms of instrumental stylings and lyrics. And if that isn’t a perfect encapsulation of what bluegrass means, then I don’t know what is.

My favorite track: “Poor Me”

 

5. City on a Hill, Mile Twelve (2019)

City on a Hill—Boston-based Mile Twelve’s second full-length album since the addition of mandolin juggernaut David Benedict—is an intimidating album to listen to. I mean it. It’s challenging on so many levels: harmonically complex tunes like Benedict’s “Rialto” are not meant to be easily reproducible like a Bill Monroe fiddle tune. Lead singer Evan Murphy’s lyrics are mature, finely crafted, pointed, unforgiving. And I still don’t understand how fiddler Bronwyn Keith-Hynes and banjo player BB Bowness are that good. Everything about Mile Twelve is what’s great about modern bluegrass: they challenge you to come up to their level with genuinely interesting and tough art. In a way that boggles the mind, this band is somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Let City on a Hill intimidate you. You’ll be hard-pressed to find an album that leaves you feeling more satisfied once it’s run its course.

My favorite track: “Down Where the Drunkards Roll”

 

4. Smoke and Ashes, The Lonely Heartstring Band (2019)

The Lonely Heartstring Band is the second young, five-piece, Boston-based, band on this list. That’s no mistake, since Mile Twelve and LHB are both forging different, but equally important, paths forward for bluegrass as a genre: while Mile Twelve is a bluegrass band to their core, the Lonely Heartstring Band makes music that transcends bluegrass while simultaneously not being constrained by bluegrass as a genre. Got that? Bluegrass is the medium for LHB, but not their focus. That comes across in their songwriting: while their lyrics are often ethereal, sometimes religious, always personal, their songs sit atop the bluegrass mold rather than in it. I hope I don’t sound too full of crap with that, but Smoke and Ashes has eluded description and analysis after probably two dozens listens by me. Still probably does. And that’s okay, because it’s just that damn good.

My favorite track: “The Other Side”

 

3. Tall Fiddler, Michael Cleveland (2019)

If we really want to talk about bluegrass to their core, we need to bring up Michael Cleveland. The fiddler’s most recent solo album is all about collaborations: the Travelin’ McCourys, Bela Fleck, and Tommy Emmanuel show up on this record. It’s also his best work ever, which is saying something if you’ve ever heard Cleveland tear up his five-string fiddle. What Michael Cleveland has done with this record is make bluegrass’ rudiments, especially the fiddle’s rudiments, seem like they were just invented yesterday. He’s injected so much fresh life into the simple act of writing a fiddle tune that even after listening to hundreds of albums, his mastery of his genre and his instrument show that in the right hands, bluegrass’ past is never done becoming new.

My favorite track: “Lazy Katie”

 

2. Long I Ride, Special Consensus (2016)

Oh, Special Consensus. Oh man. These are the guys who I immediately mention when I get the question, “what is bluegrass?” After, ya know, I’ve mentioned Tony Rice. Special Consensus, under the four-decade stewardship of Chicago banjo legend Greg Cahill, has been a consistent purveyor of quality bluegrass that always seems to have its ear to the way the genre is developing. Despite this, you always know what to expect from a Special Consensus album: a tight a cappella gospel number (“Jesus is My Rock”), probably a couple of great covers (Bob Amos’s “Where the Wild River Rolls” and Ricky Skaggs’ “Highway 40 Blues”), and some incredible collaborations (Trey Hensley and Alison Brown? Heck yes!). And despite all that, you never know what to expect… except, maybe, that you’ll be blown away.

My favorite track: “New Shenandoah”

 

1. Home, Billy Strings

Guitarist, singer, and lyricist Billy Strings is a controversial figure in bluegrass. He’s young—not much older than me, and I’m 24—and a provocative songwriter to say the least. He writes about climate change, drug use, death, and prison. Yes, the Boxcars talk about the opioid epidemic in “Caryville” and every bluegrass band to ever exist has a song about being on the chain gang. But Strings’ lyrics feel real. They feel lived in. They reflect a troubled life and a complex mind that’s learning the lessons the songs are teaching him as he sings them. Billy Strings is raw and original. That wasn’t not the case in his early days playing with mandolinist Don Julin, but it’s undeniably clear here in his second full-length solo album. His reverence for his influences, especially Doc Watson, is still clear here, but Strings’ sound is now unmistakably his. With the help of collaborators like Molly Tuttle (on “Must Be Seven”) and Jerry Douglas (on “Love Like Me”), Strings has crafted one of the finest bluegrass albums ever with Home. It’s the most powerful, satirical, and sweet bluegrass can get—and that’s why it’s my favorite bluegrass album of the last five years.

My favorite track: “Watch it Fall”

One Response

  • “Vocals tighter than a chicken truck through a tunnel”: what a great line!
    Thanks for all the suggestions; now I have more ways to fill in the time.

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