Festivals may be curtailed and jams may be sparse, but some of the genre’s best artists are still releasing some great music this year.
It’s no secret that 2020 has been a lousy year so far. With nearly every collaborative activity being undertaken from home, I’ve been working from my home office all summer—giving me a lot of time to listen to music. And, in classic me fashion, it’s been 99% bluegrass. (And most of that other 1% was Grant Gordy’s fantastic new jazz album Interpreter.)
I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the steady stream of new releases from some of my favorite bluegrass artists this year. Although 2019 (in my opinion was the best year for bluegrass music in this century) is a year that likely won’t be matched in terms of pure bluegrass gems in 2020, this year has seen some genuinely great new music so far.
Although there’s hardly a chance we’ll be able to see any of these artists perform their new material live anytime soon, they still deserve our support and our ears. With that in mind, here’s a list of eight of my favorite albums of 2020 so far—in no particular order!
1. Formations, Hawktail
Hawktail grew out of one of my favorite instrumental ensembles of the 2010s, Haas Kowert Tice, named for its three members. With the addition of Dominick Leslie on mandolin, Hawktail has emerged as the spiritual successor to the bluegrass and Newgrass supergroups of yesteryear like Strength in Numbers. Formations, the quartet’s second studio album, builds on the ethereal instrumental aesthetic of the first record, Unless. In this new oeuvre, however, Hawktail takes even more daring chances—but the group is now so good at what they do, even their most “out there” tunes don’t feel like leaps anymore. Influences from Vasen, the Punch Brothers, and—most importantly—the quartet themselves abound in this wonderful record. Formations, for me, is another great reminder of the fact that the big dogs like Fleck and Grisman and Bush have worthy disciples waiting in the wings.
My favorite track: “Eddie’s Attic”
2. Bluegrass 2020, Scott Vestal, Patrick McAvinue, Cody Kilby, Dominick Leslie, & Curtis Vestal
The second album on this list is also the second all-instrumental one. And the second with Dominick Leslie on mandolin, how about that! Pinecastle Records has been putting together “Bluegrass [insert year here]” records since 1995, with Scott Vestal usually leading a group of fine fellers in some spirited picking. Bluegrass 2020 is pretty much the polar opposite of Formations in that you know exactly what to expect: Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe numbers, some sweet banjo picking, and plenty of fast foot-stomping jammers. And I think a little bit of that by-the-numbers bluegrass just might make things feel just a little bit more normal.
My favorite track: “Foggy Mountain Chimes”
3. With You, Kenny and Amanda Smith
Kenny and Amanda Smith are quickly becoming a staple in the mainstream bluegrass circle. The husband and wife team—both guitarists and vocalists—have lately been putting out some of the best love songs and duets in the genre, all combined with tasteful instrumentals and deft songwriting. Although “Norman Rockwell World” is definitely this summer’s overplayed bluegrass radio hit, the song is deserving of that title more so than previous entrants into that exclusive club. (*cough* Sideline *cough* Thunder Dan *cough*) With You is good, wholesome, easy listening bluegrass, thanks to Amanda’s sweet voice and Kenny’s excellent flatpicking—all the right stuff, and just what we’ve come to expect from one of bluegrass’s best pairs.
My favorite track: “Brand New Road”
4. Chicago Barn Dance, Special Consensus
If you know me, you know I love my Special Consensus. The band’s previous records, 2018’s Rivers and Roads and 2016’s Long I Ride are some of my favorite bluegrass albums ever, and I have a feeling that Chicago Barn Dance has the potential to reach those same highs—but perhaps for different reasons. This newest record from banjo player Greg Cahill’s long-running Chicago bluegrass outfit features some Special Consensus specials: great covers, great collaborations, and a fancy a capella gospel number. This album ups the ante by—get this—being one of the most hilarious bluegrass records I’ve ever heard. “I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music” reads like a Steve Martin comedy set, and the band’s cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Looking Out My Door” comments on the original version’s whole-step key change by… doing three whole-step key changes. I laughed out loud so hard at this album. Chicago Barn Dance is just a blast, proving once again that Greg Cahill is an unmatched leader in the genre.
My favorite track: “Lake Shore Drive”
5. Not Our First Goat Rodeo, Stuart Duncan, Yo-yo Ma, and Edgar Meyer, & Chris Thile
The long-anticipated follow-up to 2011’s Goat Rodeo Sessions is… not as good as the original. Sorry! That doesn’t mean it’s not a great record, but come on guys. The original Goat Rodeo project, featuring Chris Thile at the height of his power, was a revelation for music itself. It was an instrumental accomplishment that brought together the best aspects of classical, folk, and bluegrass traditions to make something that had more than just broad appeal—it had staying power. Maybe too much staying power, since in my opinion, Not Our First Goat Rodeo doesn’t have anything new to add to the story its predecessor initiated. And that doesn’t make it bad either, or even derivative. It just left me with the feeling that four of the greatest musicians of our time would have come up with something new and radical again after a decade. Ah, well. Still, this follow-up deserves a listen in full—it’s still exquisitely crafted, and maybe you’ll find more merit in this record than I did.
My favorite track: “Voila!”
6. Promise of Tomorrow, Turkeyfoot
This is absolutely a shameless plug for my boys out in Colorado, Turkeyfoot. I played many a gig with this band when I lived out in Denver, and I was thrilled when I got their debut album in the mail last month. Turkeyfoot is the brainchild of mandolinist and songwriter Jordan Brandenburg; but one of the great aspects of this band is that there is no single leading man. All the guys take vocal and instrumental leads, singing songs that they wrote to tell their stories. There aren’t too many bands that do that kind of thing—and one of them is Special Consensus, so you know they’re in good company. Turkeyfoot just keeps gaining momentum on the Colorado bluegrass scene, and I can’t wait until they make it out east when Grey Fox, Gettysburg, DelFest, and all our other festivals come roaring back to life.
My favorite track: “Old Shoes”
7. Roll the Tapes All Night Long, Mile Twelve
Mile Twelve is one of those bands that just makes me want to lock my door and practice all day long. This band of youngsters—the band’s median age is 27!—keeps putting out music that is more mature, complex, and fun than you could ever imagine a bunch of millennials making. I’ve sung their praises before (even proclaiming 2019’s City on a Hill one of my top ten favorite bluegrass albums of the last five years,) and I have even more good things to say about this new EP from the Boston-based outfit. Their vocals are what stand out more than anything here, a shocker given the instrumental prowess of the band’s five members—not to say that their picks and bows aren’t getting some serious licks in too. Mile Twelve also gets collaborative with this project, with tracks featuring Bruce Molsky, Brittany Haas, Chris Eldridge, and on my favorite track, Billy Strings.
My favorite track: “Cold Wind”
8. Man of Constant Sorrow, Ralph Stanley and Friends
Ralph Stanley, one of bluegrass’s greatest founders and pioneers, tragically passed away in 2016. However, a record released back in April assembled collaborations the late great banjo player made with various bluegrass artists over the years into a comprehensive album. Gillian Welch, Dierks Bentley, Old Crow Medicine Show, and many others make appearances on the album—not simply bringing clout and talent to the table, but also helping the younger Stanley brother bring his songs to life in a new way. This album may be just the kind of record we need in COVID-19 times, delivering the words and wisdom of a bluegrass balladeer who passed before this new and troublesome era. Ralph’s songs are irreverent, and they’re a great reminder of the lasting power and perseverance of bluegrass music and its source material.
My favorite track: “I am the Man Thomas”
David, thanks for the thoughtful, insightful, and very well written reviews. It’s great to have these capsule summaries of music I might have missed. Good work!