1. Flatt & Scruggs: Foggy Mountain Banjo (Columbia LP CS 8364), and Live at Carnegie Hall (Columbia LP CS 8845 /Koch CD 7929 of full concert) from 1961 and 1963
These two recordings have everything you need to know about playing bluegrass banjo, playing all the other bluegrass instruments (except mandolin), bluegrass singing, and putting on a bluegrass show. The PEAK of bluegrass in the early 1960s. Both have become classics. You can get both albums (and much more) in the Bear Family boxed set Flatt & Scruggs 1959-1963.
2. Bill Monroe: The Essential Bill Monroe (Columbia CD C2K 52478) covering 1945 to 1949, and Master of Bluegrass (MCA LP MCA-5214) from 1981
This Columbia CD set has the entire 40 song canon of “Blue Grass” music covering 4 foundational years, and even provides some alternate takes, surprisingly proving that there is more than one way to do an original Blue Grass song! Master of Bluegrass showed that even in his senior years, Monroe still had magic in his mind and his hands. Tunes, tunes, tunes! This instrumental album opened my mind to the hundreds of unrecorded mandolin songs Monroe wrote. These two recordings contain nearly all you need to know about playing bluegrass mandolin.
3. Louvin Brothers: Tragic Songs of Life (Capitol CD 7243) from 1956
I heard these gruesome songs from my mom and dad’s LP from about the age of 6, and they marked me. You can’t understand harmony singing, and that includes bluegrass harmony singing, if you haven’t listened to the Louvins’ towering mastery. Excellent mandolin playing that is proto-bluegrass in nature. Charlie Louvin’s guitar is just as bluegrass as can be.
4. Jimmy Martin: Good ‘n Country (Decca LP DL 4016) from 1960
A family friend gave this LP to my mom and dad when I was a kid. He said “I can’t stand all that yipping!” Yipping or no, this is probably the best example of Jimmy Martin’s considerable powers as a band leader, teacher, singer, guitar player, arranger, etc. Hard core, and extremely high level playing and singing. To this day, things on this LP still astound me.
Also the colorized photo on the LP jacket is priceless.
5. Country Gentlemen: Bringing Mary Home (Rebel LP RLP 1478) from 1966
My dad “discovered” the Country Gentlemen in the mid-1960s listening to the World Famous Wheeling Jamboree Saturday nights on WWVA-1170 AM. They leapt into prominence with this new song “Bringing Mary Home.” We got that LP and as a young teen banjo picker I was HOOKED on these “new sounds”. They were my favorite band, and Eddie Adcock was my favorite banjo player, ‘til I saw Ralph Stanley live in 1970.
6. Joe Greene’s Fiddle Album (County LP County 722) from 1969
By the end of high school I was pretty comfortable with my banjo playing. My interests shifted slightly to bluegrass fiddle. A County Sales review said Joe Greene’s Fiddle Album was tip-top, so I ordered it. To this day I feel it’s the best bluegrass fiddle album ever made — all fiery traditional hard core fiddling (no woo-woo stuff) that still mystifies me. What a shame Big Joe Greene disappeared from the music scene while he paid a debt to society (so I understand). Top flight sidemen include Chubby Wise (guitar!), JD Crowe and Roland White.
7. Del McCoury (Rebel LP SLP 1542) from 1975 and The McCoury Brothers (Rounder LP 0230) from 1987
The guy up in Maine who played guitar with us for years was the first of us to go out of Maine to check out these “bluegrass festival” things in 1969 (Shade Gap PA Firemen’s Picnic), and he came home singing the praises of this GREAT guitar player and tenor singer Del McCoury. I got to see Del in 1970 at a festival and became an instant fan (yes I was a Del-Head). This Rebel LP just about kept me alive the first year I was in my new job just out of college – no vacation, so I couldn’t go to festivals!!!! This album just SLAMS the manly, hairy-legged, traditional bluegrass on you with full power, no apologies — nothing “pretty”. I played along with this LP on my banjo and guitar for MONTHS – I was far from home and far from all my picking folks – that’s lonesome. This LP also features the best mandolin player that I think Del ever had – Donnie Eldreth Sr.. MAN could that guy dig the guts out of an old Loar mandolin! The Brothers’ LP is also POWERFUL; Del & little brother Jerry (bass fiddle) are backed by the Johnson Mountain Boys! One of the best LPs from the end of the 20th century. And the “newest” recording on my Top Ten.
8. Bill Clifton: Carter Family Memorial Album (Starday LP SLP 146) from 1961
This is among the first LPs my mom and dad bought when they got the “stereo”; I was about 8 or 9. As a real little feller I had heard plenty of mom and dad’s 78 rpm records and one LP by the Carter Family. I was inspired to play guitar starting at age 8 by Mother Maybelle Carter’s records. Bill Clifton and the Dixie Mountaineers were among the very first bluegrass outfits I ever heard on record. It helped that the songs were somewhat familiar to me from my Carter Family listening. Top flight 1950s bluegrass musicians showed how the archaic Carter Family records could be re-arranged to a bluegrass setting. Very successful record. And the nice liner notes on the back of the LP educated me, the voracious little reader that I was. We only ever got one other Bill Clifton record, and it was a good one too.
9. The Lilly Brothers & Don Stover: What Will I Leave Behind (County LP 742 or Rebel CD 1788) from 1973
In the late 1960s we up in Maine began to get wind of this “Friends of Bluegrass and Old Time Music” monthly thing running in Boston around Harvard U.. Around 1970 or so a bunch of us ventured down on an extremely frigid winter night to the Harvard Memorial Union where we saw a show featuring the Lilly Brothers and Don Stover, and The Old Time Bluegrass Singers (Joe Val et al). Seeing the Lillys and Stover was like getting hit in the head with a mallet! HOLY SMOKES those guys were getting’ it! We soon learned about their near-mythical background bringing bluegrass to Boston, and we started buying their LPs. This LP represents the Lillys in all their glory, quirky though they certainly were! Yes it’s a gospel album, but they display the full range of their talented style. They were the best Monroe Brothers and Blue Sky Boys imitators that ever walked the planet, and they always performed as a living link between old time duets and bluegrass. They were the “real-est” bluegrass COUNTRY people we ever met, and I’m talking coal-oil real. This CD is both sweet and pounding, depending on the pacing of the songs. They are all at their considerable B.E.S.T.!
10.The Stanley Brothers: two Collector’s Box Sets — Starday-King Years and King Years (KBSCD 7000 and KG 0950 2) from 1958-1965; and Ralph Stanley Cry From the Cross (Rebel LP 1499) from 1971
It’s just about impossible to choose any single LP or CD by the Stanley Brothers or Ralph Stanley, so I’m going to cheat in a huge way and select the two box sets that cover their entire recording history from the late 50s to their last session in 1965, on the Starday and King labels. Yes, I know this skips over their earliest, highly creative period when Carter was writing White Dove, etc., and when they were developing the “new” high baritone trio with Pee Wee Lambert. But they really had it down to a science by the time they were recording for Starday and King. Even though during some of these years, due to rock ‘n’ roll, gigs were VERY hard for them to come by. This is also part of the sound I grew up with, as my folks bought every one of their LPs in the 1960s. These box sets feature great sidemen (including, some say, The Hardest Working Man in Show Business – James Brown – on snare drum on two sessions), great songs, and the schadenfreude of knowing you’re listening to Carter slowly kill himself with booze and shove his little brother into the limelight. Ralph Stanley’s “Cry From the Cross” is felt by many to be his very best recording in his own name. Young Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs were in the band along with fiddler Curly Ray Cline, bass man Jack Cooke, and the incomparable Roy Lee Centers — unquestionably the best lead singer ever to bless Ralph after Carter passed. Ralph’s music was the reason I turned away from the Country Gentlemen!
Ah, so many others I couldn’t fit into a top 10 no matter how I cheated. Uncle Dave Macon. Charlie Monroe. Reno & Smiley. Roy Acuff (yes!). Johnnie & Jack (yes!). The Seldom Scene. Bluegrass Cardinals. Nashville Bluegrass Band. Johnson Mountain Boys. JD Crowe and the Kentucky Mountain Boys or the New South. Kenny Baker. Lynn Morris. Early Tony Rice. And nowadays, High Fidelity. Po’ Ramblin’ Boys. And SO MANY MORE! Thank goodness for traditional bluegrass, then and now and ever shall be!