This story could have been subtitled “How I Spent My Christmas Vacation.” Taking a stack of new bluegrass CDs from 2002 home with me, many of them captured that elusive spark of creativity in an art form relying heavily on tradition. Sure, some of them were terrible, or simply uninspired, but here are the ones I kept returning to, listed in alphabetical order.
First Light, Daybreak
A four-piece band that’s getting strong responses in Nashville nightclubs, Daybreak shows promise with their lilting, youthful bluegrass. Each of the members contributes original material to First Light. If Nickel Creek ’s This Side hadn’t veered so far from bluegrass, it may have sounded something like this.
Flame Keeper, Michael Cleveland
A three-time IBMA award winner, the vivacious Michael Cleveland cut his chops with Rhonda Vincent’s band, The Rage, where he kept the crowds in stitches with his dry humor while astounding them with his musicianship. Some Ragers assist him here, but it’s Cleveland’s own fiery fiddle work that keeps this album ablaze. Amazing.
The Hard Game of Love, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver
Though primarily known for gospel numbers, this bluegrass mainstay turned in a dazzling secular album with high harmonies to die for. How does heartbreak sound so heavenly? With its plaintive vocals, “We Missed You” brings yearning to a whole new level and there could be no better title track for this album.
Live, Alison Krauss
& Union Station
A true class act in acoustic music, AKUS’ live album — a brisk blend of ballads and bluegrass — makes you wonder, “Are they really this good in concert?” Yes, they are. Includes “When You Say Nothing at All,” “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” and a wealth of terrific recent material such as “Let Me Touch You for Awhile.”
No Other Way, Mountain Heart
Highly polished and equally heartfelt, No Other Way could be the most perfect of the year’s bluegrass albums. Adam Steffey earned a 2002 IBMA award for his mandolin work, but special notice must go to Jim Van Cleve’s soaring fiddle. All five pickers come from other noteworthy bands — but bring them together and it’s mountain magic.
O Sister 2, A Women’s Bluegrass Collection
With boring bluegrass compilations suddenly crowding the bins, O Sister 2 stands out for bringing women to the fore. Good stuff from Jeannie Kendall and Alecia McRight, who will release solo albums in 2003. Plus, it’s a nice crash course — Alison Krauss , Rhonda Vincent , Lynn Morris, Claire Lynch and Laurie Lewis are all represented.
Route 10, Special Consensus
These are essentially mainstream country songs set to a bluegrass beat, and it works beautifully. Keep an eye on Josh Williams, an accomplished 21-year-old mandolin player who turns in strong vocals. “Carolina in the Pines,” a cover of Michael Martin Murphey’s spirited love song that closes the set, makes me want to pack for the hills this very minute.
Song for Greta, James Alan Shelton
Crisp and pretty, this fine album flows like a sunny Virginia stream. Shelton plays guitar in Ralph Stanley’s band, but these appealing instrumentals also cover folk (“Scarbrough Fair”) and country (“Faded Love”). While a cameo from Gillian Welch recalls bleaker times, “Down Yonder” bounces with sheer joy.
The Story Is … The Songs of Tom T. Hall, Charlie Sizemore
Several bluegrass artists have called on Tom T. Hall ’s catalog, but fellow Kentuckian Charlie Sizemore one-upped them all with an entire album of Hall’s masterful work. And what an album! Created by two of the most subtle craftsmen in country music, The Story Is… nevertheless glimmers with vivid narratives. Wonderful singing, too.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
All the usual suspects appear on Circle III but the concept still works: Bring in the truest musicians in Nashville and honor thy music: Del McCoury , Doc Watson , Earl Scruggs , Vassar Clements , Jimmy Martin , June Carter Cash , Willie Nelson , Alison Krauss, Vince Gill , Emmylou Harris , Dwight Yoakam , Ricky Skaggs and, of course, the Dirt Band. Johnny Cash ’s tribute to the Carter Family is especially poignant.
See the complete Best of 2002.