- March 05, 2021
- Devon Léger
- Album Reviews
When I set out to cover new bluegrass music on Bandcamp for this month’s Bandcamp Friday I was hoping to find new music from more mainstream bluegrass artists. For all that bluegrass is obsessed with tradition, it seems that a lot of modern bluegrass is tied more to modern country than it is to the old sounds or “ancient tones” of Bill Monroe. I was hoping to understand mainstream bluegrass a bit more, but mostly what I found was that bluegrass is barely available on Bandcamp! I had to dig a lot deeper than usual but it was worth it for some of the gems here that I was able to dig up! Since bluegrass has always been a tradition that loves its roots but is excited to change up its future, I picked a few artists that sometimes fall outside the traditional definition of bluegrass. Hopefully the front-row purists in the folding chairs will forgive me, but even if they won’t, this is a fine crop of new music to enjoy (and support!) this Bandcamp Friday.
Dale Ann Bradley is the doyenne of Tennessee bluegrass, beloved by her peers and a mentor to younger artists in the tradition. She’s a key figure, but so humble that her name may not tumble off the lips like other folks in that world, and yet she deserves far more dues than she gets. Born in Kentucky coal mining country to a house with no running water, she grew up in the exact tradition that birthed bluegrass, including, most critically, a family background in the Primitive Baptist church. The otherworldly, haunting sound of this church tradition directly informed the great Ralph Stanley, and also informs players today like Riley Baugus. I believe it’s at the heart of the famed “high, lonesome Appalachian sound.” Things She Couldn’t Get Over is Bradley’s new album on Pinecastle Records, released in early February 2021. She tackles hard subjects, including the infamous Trail of Tears, homeless veterans, and the heart of a woman trying to survive mental illness, but she leaves time for a bit of fun as well with a song like “L.A. International Airport”. Throughout she just makes bluegrass so dang relatable that you can’t help but want to stan for her. She’s a national treasure.
Casey Driessen’s one of the most brilliant bluegrass fiddlers in the world. If you don’t believe me, check out what he can do with something as simple as the bluegrass “chop” (the off-rhythm bow strikes fiddlers use in the background when others are soloing). He’s a relentlessly curious artist too, and I’ve been enjoying his recent music videos showcasing his worldwide travels and jam sessions with other master musicians around the globe. In these videos, he shows an open love for music and a thoughtfulness that I’d like to think comes from the collaborative roots of bluegrass. Driessen’s album based on these sessions, Otherlands: A Global Music Exploration, is coming April 23, 2021, though you can pre-order it now on Bandcamp, and it features jams with master traditional artists in Spain, Ireland, Scotland, India, Japan, and Finland. The Finnish track with fiddler Esko Järvelä is up now and it’s just gorgeous, the kind of lush fiddle tune you could slip on like a fur coat on a cold day. The videos of Driessen’s other travels are up online as well and just as delightful. This is the life we should wish for our best traditional artists, jetting around the world melding minds with other masters. Now if only our government would directly support this kind of art like most other civilized countries!
Way up in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Saltwater Hank (the alter ego of Ts'msyen First Nations musician Jeremy Pahl) has been cranking out some pretty salty field recordings of old-time fiddle tunes and songs. Recorded between the Okanagan valley and the Haida Gwaii islands, maybe even further afield, in living rooms and front porches, Hank delights in the old rough and tumble stringband tunes from the Blue Ridge Mountains. In fact, the title of the series is a nod to something a snooty fiddler at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes said to Hank about his playing: “That’s not how Tommy played it!” meaning the great Appalachian fiddler Tommy Jarrell. Well, sorry snooty Fiddle Tunes nerd, but this IS how Tommy played it. Hank’s channeling the same front porch energy that Tommy loved so much, the same energy that Lomax went looking for. Music tied to a place, music that reflects a community. Hank’s other work is mighty intriguing as well, he’s been writing songs about cannery work in the Northwest and about his own heritage, and as a special nod to that he named the one original tune on the album, “Silamiilgi,” in the Ts'msyen language Sm'algyax (it means “would you dance with me”). Yes I’d like more fiddle tunes in Native languages! But everything aside, this album is just plain fun. He’s taking the old-time fiddling that inspired key bluegrass artists like Kenny Baker (a huge Jarrell acolyte) and making it his own. When I told him that I thought he actually DID sound a lot like Tommy Jarrell and that the fiddler nerd was wrong, he replied “Nobody can play it like Tommy plays it. Nobody can play it like anyone plays it!” If that’s not a great motto, I don’t know what is.
West Virginia artist John Lilly is a songwriter’s songwriter, the kind of artist that other artists listen to obsessively, trying to parse how he’s able to make a great song sound so easy on the ears. He doesn’t record too much and he’s not a national name (though he should be), but I’ve heard other songwriters talking about him for years and his honky-tonk and bluegrass originals keep popping up everywhere. Recently, Lilly’s been living with Parkinson’s and struggling from not being able to tour or perform, so his long-time friend and protégé, Colorado songwriter Jackson Emmer, put together this all-star tribute album to Lilly with the goal of sharing his songs and letting folks know what a treasure he is. Powerful guest list too, which attests to Lilly’s respect from other performers: featured names include Maya de Vitry, Ethan Jodziewicz (Sierra Hull), Brennen Leigh, Noel McKay, Tim O’Brien, Kathy Mattea, Golden Shoals, and more. Lilly’s songs can be a downright blast to listen to, like Bill Kirchen’s cover of “Tore Up From The Floor Up” or O’Brien’s “Come When Mama Calls” or sadly poignant like “My Love Never Sleeps,” sung by Letitia VanSant, or “These Songs,” sung by Lilly himself. Lilly’s songs are eminently singable, hummable, enjoyable and hopefully this all-star tribute album will be a great introduction to those who haven’t heard of him. Pre-order now to support an artist in need!
This is one of the bluegrass albums I’m most looking forward to in 2021. Sam Armstrong-Zickefoose’s infectious positivity and clear-minded banjo playing are just a bright shining light in the genre. With his first solo album coming in April 2021, he’s taking on the mantle of progressive bluegrass and indie folk that Joy Kills Sorrow left behind when they broke up. Based in Denver, Sam enlists some of Colorado’s best bluegrass players to make the album with him, including members of one of my favorite band, Finnders & Youngberg. Sam’s a killer banjo player, but his voice has a lovely lift that floats over the banjo lines in a most agreeable way. Props too for his careful work bridging his banjo playing with percussionist Colton Liberatore. Since the banjo’s an inherently percussive instrument (basically a drum with strings), that kind of interplay has long been left out of bluegrass because of the genre’s strange distaste for drums. Bluegrass isn’t always the most welcoming world, and as a queer artist in bluegrass, Sam’s no doubt felt the pressure of a genre that’s in many ways defined by straight love and heteronormative history, but with so many great publications and organizations, from Bluegrass Pride to Country Queer to IBMA and The Bluegrass Situation’s Shout & Shine showcases and initiatives, hopefully powerful artists like Sam will be better represented in bluegrass in the near future.
Many thanks to bluegrass buddy Justin Hiltner for reminding me of this lovely EP from Kelly Bosworth and Libby Weitnauer (Tui). It’s not straight up bluegrass so much as a beautiful set of mountain duets, the kind of close-harmony, fiddle-drenched music that’s in the DNA of early bluegrass and country. With sparkling guitar runs and gentle vocals, it’s a soothing album, the kind of “made at home” music you’d like to imagine is at the heart of bluegrass. Certainly the music of mothers and families and friends inspired all of the bluegrass greats, and this is a reminder that bluegrass doesn’t have to be flashy, full of solos, cloaked in a suit and tie, and played on a big stage to be compelling, touching, and maybe even a little nostalgic. It’s the exact antithesis of Nashville’s current run of bluegrass, but funny enough it’s exactly what made bluegrass special in Nashville in the first place.
The first time I ever heard country superstar Sturgill Simpson was at Pickathon in 2012, right before he blew up. All I can remember is thinking “Wow, this dude REALLY likes honky-tonk music.” With the surprise quarantine release of Cutting Grass Vols 1 and 2 it’s clear that Simpson REALLY likes bluegrass too! Certainly the line between bluegrass supernerd and country superstar has always been surprisingly thin. Keith Whitley started off as Ralph Stanley’s main singer before he became a mullet-wearing country hero, Vince Gill’s sold 26 million country albums but was playing bluegrass since high school, and I watched Chris Stapleton take AmericanaFest to task for not giving more love to bluegrass when he got his Artist of the Year award (Stapleton cut his teeth with bluegrass band The Steeldrivers). Regardless, the proof is in the pudding: Simpson cut two red hot bluegrass albums. He brought some of the hottest pickers in the US (Tim O’Brien, Stuart Duncan, Sierra Hull, Mike Bub, and Scott Vestal) to Nashville’s Butcher Shoppe studios and they just cut loose. Simpson’s song sound revitalized as bluegrass numbers; “Long White Line” especially has to be one of the most badass bluegrass songs I’ve ever heard. If you’re not familiar with Sturgill’s songs, this album is a great entry point, and if you know him well, odds are you’ll love this. You can’t go wrong!
Adam Hurt’s the kind of banjo player that other banjo players whisper about. He’s so good that his talent borders on mystical. His earlier albums are well known on the scene for a preternatural ability to interpret tunes grounded in the old-time world and massive playing ability. His newest album, Back to the Earth, has been patiently awaited on the scene and it does not disappoint. He’s not a player that wows by speed or virtuosity, though his ornamentation and playing ability is virtuosic. He’s a player that’s uncommonly able to translate the best parts of a tune into something truly beautiful. Limiting himself to the humble gourd banjo, Hurt’s clawhammer banjo on this album is precise, heartfelt, and powerfully inventive. He plays slowly and carefully but with great love for the music. He’s got pretty huge guests too including Ricky Skaggs on mandolin, Brittany Haas on fiddle, Jordan Tice on guitar, Paul Kowert of Punch Bros on bass, and more, but it’s his mellifluous banjo that stands out. Even when he weaves into an Irish tune (“The Morning Star”), a viscerally difficult genre for clawhammer banjo players, he never breaks stride, never breaks a sweat.
Bandleader for progressive roots band Mile Twelve out of Boston, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes solo album’s already been reviewed on Folk Alley but I couldn’t resist taking a crack at it too. The album’s just so much fun to listen to! Keith-Hynes made it after moving to Nashville and it sounds exactly like the kind of Nashville backyard bluegrass jams that you know are happening all over the city with some of the world’s best players all living in one spot. Maybe it’s an afterparty jam tucked in a corner, or a late night recording studio jam when a bigwig pops over for a beer. Her album’s got that effortlessly impromptu feeling that only the best bluegrass players have been able to forge from a lifetime of study. Great guest list too, including Sierra Hull, Tim O’Brien, Wes Corbett, Chris Eldridge of Punch Bros, Sarah Jarosz, and more!
If you want more bluegrass from Keith-Hynes, her band Mile Twelve released a recent quarantine EP on Bandcamp featuring Billy Strings, Eldridge, Brittany Haas, and Bruce Molsky.
BONUS: Inspired by David Grisman and Tony Rice’s Pizza Tapes, outsider folk artists Ben Walden and Jeremy James Meyer from tiny Enterprise, Oregon, just released the Taco Tapes on American Standard Time Records. Fun romps through classic tunes, trippy arrangements on the songs, band worth it for the laid back vibes and a killer killer cover of Tom Petty’s “Melinda.”
I’d long heard that Southern Ohio had a rich tradition of Appalachian music brought across the border by Kentuckians looking for work in urban areas, but I had no idea how rich this vein of tradition was! Smithsonian Folkways’ new release, coming April 2021, features songs from the many luminaries that came out of Southwest Ohio’s industrial bluegrass scene, from originators Bobby and Sonny Osborne, to Red Allen and Frank Wakefield, and the legendary but haunted Dave Evans. Compiled by bluegrass artist and broadcaster Joe Mullins with his son (and fellow broadcaster) Daniel, part of the draw is the Mullins’ insider knowledge of this region’s history, coming up in the scene and knowing the venues and players so well. Great liner notes as well that break down the surprising Ohio ties for everyone from Flatt & Scruggs (recorded their earliest recordings post-Monroe) to Larry Sparks and Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys (recorded at King Records in Ohio too plus Sparks was from Ohio). Mullins has assembled some huge bluegrass stars too who explore this Ohio repertoire, including Lee Ann Womack, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Jim Lauderdale, Dan Tyminski, Rhonda Vincent, Vince Gill, and many more. It’s a huge cast and the album’s a lot of fun, and importantly it celebrates the working class industrial urban roots of bluegrass, which often get glossed over in favor of a romanticized vision of Appalachia.
BONUS: many of the industrial roots of Folkways’ new album were based in Ohio’s steel mills, and steelworkers were a key audience for this particular strain of bluegrass. While searching through Bandcamp, I also came upon this intriguing experimental banjo album from Simeon Allocco, an artist who is also a steelworker, living in Oregon. Though from North Carolina, he’s part of yet another wave of Appalachians moving far away looking for work and bringing the music with them.
I have a huge love for music that straddles the line between bluegrass and old-time, incorporating old square dance fiddle tunes with blazing hot three-finger Scruggs style bluegrass banjo. The area around Galax, Virginia, already a hotbed for mountain music has long been a neutral ground between the two camps, and with their new album, The Rocky Creek Ramblers mix it up the Galax way. Joseph Decosimo is easily one of the best young old-time fiddlers in the US, a tunehound who pulls his music from direct sources, and here he’s joined by picking buddies Ken Landreth on three finger banjo, Jim Nelson on guitar, Jim Collier on mandolin, and Joe Dejarnette on bass for a multi-generational band. The tunes are classics that have long roamed between bluegrass and old-time, like Sally Ann, Paddy on the Turnpike, Cumberland Gap, some in new settings from more rare sources. As much as bluegrass and old-time seem to live in separate worlds, they certainly come from the same source and as bluegrass began its long ascent, there were many great players that happily played both, often at th same time. The great Paisleys and Lundys, also from Galax, come to mind immediately and the Ramblers have some of that same “boots on the dancefloor” feel to their playing.
BONUS: bluegrass legend Danny Paisley has a new album coming April on Bandcamp from Pinecastle Records, so watch out for that! Paisley’s the real deal and a great example of a bluegrass artist with powerful old-time roots. His band carries on the Paisley & Lundy tradition that dates all the way back to the great stringband fiddler Emmett Lundy.