During a downer summer devoid of festivals and pickin’ parties, some of bluegrass’s best artists have released some amazing studio material.
This year has continued to be a bummer for the music world: artists from your local favorites to the biggest stars have canceled tours and shows, with no end in sight. And with fall signaling the coming of winter, what few outdoor shows us musicians have been able to pull off won’t be here to stay for long.
But hark! Some of our genre’s best artists—both newcomers and established names—have been releasing some amazing music over the past few months. I figured I’d follow up my previous blog post about some releases from the first half of 2020 with some more excellent albums from this summer—some of which come courtesy of some groups I’ve had the pleasure of playing with in the past.
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 are eight more great new albums from 2020!
1. Blue Haze, Robert Hale and the 8th Wonder Band
Robert Hale and the 8th Wonder Band—with Scott Vestal on banjo, Chris Davis on mandolin, Missy Raines on bass, and Shawn Lane on fiddle—have released their first album. It’s an album of covers, so you know I went gaga for it. “Rapid Roy (the Stock Car boy)” by Jim Croce, “Mr. Bojangles” by Jerry Jeff Walker, and the folk rock classic “House of the Rising Sun” all appear on this album, and are performed with both precision and panache. Robert Hale, who I have long considered to be an underrated singer and guitarist in the genre, finally has a hit on his hands—and who wouldn’t with this ensemble and this repertoire?
2. Arrows, Bowregard
Bowregard is a Colorado-based outfit, and it shows. Talent and creativity like this in the bluegrass genre is more commonly found in Denver than Nashville these days! The Bowregard guys and gals won the prestigious Telluride Bluegrass Band contest back in 2019; the year before that, they won the 2018 Ullrgrass Bluegrass Band Contest. They’ve got chops, prestige, and some great new ideas—taking a unique spin to older songs like Ola Belle Reed’s “High on a Mountain”, and bringing some of their own songs and tunes to the table. Justin Konrad’s fantastic dobro playing and James Armington’s driving banjo playing are the bow(regard) on top of this package for me. Pandemic or not, this band has more than enough momentum and drive to separate them from the enormous Colorado bluegrass field—believe you me, this isn’t the last time you’ll be hearing about Bowregard.
3. Fiddler’s Pastime, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes
This album’s inclusion on this list should come as a surprise to no one. I am a HUGE Mile Twelve fan, so fiddler Bronwyn Keith-Hynes first solo outing was a highly anticipated album over here at the Chernack compound. Keith-Hynes’s fiddle playing is second to none, and the quality of her playing on this record should come as a surprise to no one; what really drew me in for multiple listens of this record was her amazing use of collaborators like Sarah Jarosz, Sierra Hull, and Chris Eldridge. These musical partners flush out Keith-Hynes’s ace in the hole: her amazing range as a fiddler. She can play Canadian trad like April Verch, Texas swing like Johnny Gimble, and high-octane bluegrass like Michael Cleveland. She can play that fiddle like no other in her cohort, and I look forward to the even higher heights her career are sure to reach.
4. Swing for the Fences, Phil Leadbetter and the All-Stars of Bluegrass
So, funny story: Phil Leadbetter is actually my favorite dobro player. He’s not usually mentioned in the same breath as Rob Ickes and Jerry Douglas, but I think there are few who do bluegrass dobro better than Phil. Now with a band that features Robert Hale, Steve Gulley, and Alan Bibey, he’s got a group of guys who can help elevate his slide guitar craft. This band brings some beautiful songs to the table on this record, with high-caliber picking and singing, all wrapped up in what seems like a fairly straightforward bluegrass package—because it is. The Phil Leadbetter and his All-Stars just happen to do it really damn well.
5. Lost & Found, Dylan McCarthy
This fantastic EP from Colorado-based mandolinist Dylan McCarthy represents a special inclusion for me. Dylan and I were actually in a band together when I lived in Colorado: the short-lived quartet Glacier Lily was going places until their fiddle player decided to up and move to the Hudson Valley for some reason. Anyway, McCarthy is a lauded and highly talented picker on the Colorado circuit, having snagged a win in the prestigious RockyGrass mandolin competition in 2019. And while he’s a talented songwriter too, McCarthy lets his flatpick do all the talking on Lost & Found. His tune writing recalls jovial and energetic instrumental numbers from Bela Fleck on Drive and John Reischman on Up in the Woods. If the mention of either of those records put a smile on your face, then good news! Lost & Found will absolutely do the same.
6. Age, Masontown
Masontown is the third Colorado-based outfit on this list, but their inclusion may represent the most traditional album of those included here. Not everything out of Denver and Boulder has to be progressive in the traditional sense. (Wait, what?) Masontown is a polished, professional, and heartfelt band: their music is overflowing with care, and their songs feel lived-in, accessible, and joyful. That’s not to say they don’t absolutely rip, too: their rendition of “Come Along Jody,” which is basically the final boss of Tex Logan tunes, should put Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper on notice. Natalie Padilla, arguably Colorado’s premier fiddler, seals the deal on this record for me—her fiddling is absolutely something to behold. And although this isn’t a ranked list… Age just might be my favorite release of the year.
7. Load the Wagon, Junior Sisk
Junior Sisk and Rambler’s Choice has a problem that I ascribe to a few musicians: they make too much music. Specifically, they release too many records. Load the Wagon is Junior Sisk’s fourth full-length studio album with Rambler’s Choice in just five years, and with a string of releases so compact, any musician runs the risk of releasing uninspired and generic content. Thankfully, Junior’s most recent record is a return to form for one of the genre’s most storied modern groups, finally recapturing the magic of one of my favorite albums of the last ten years: 2017’s The Mountains Are Calling Me Home. Junior Sisk remains one of the most charismatic singers and songwriters on the bluegrass scene today, and that fact shines brightest through this irreverent and fun record.
8. The John Hartford Fiddle Project, Vol. 1, Various artists
This highly anticipated album is one of my favorite releases to come out of the bluegrass genre in years, and with good reason. John Hartford, one of the first bluegrass vagabonds, was a prolific composer. Recently, a small trove of *clears throat* more than one thousand of his unpublished fiddle tunes was unearthed. (It’s a fascinating story—read more about it here.) Since none of these tunes had ever been recorded, Nashville-based fiddler Matt Combs assembled a group of some of the finest bluegrass musicians working today—including Alison Brown, Tim O’Brien, Sierra Hull, Forrest O’Connor, Dennis Crouch, and dozens more—to put a handful of them to tape in this first volume of the “John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project.” These ear-wormy tunes are exuberant in character, played with impeccable skill, and definitely worth a listen. The entire album just screams Hartford.