Although I make no claims to be an expert in bluegrass, this year I found myself listening to it more often than ever, almost as much as country. The musicianship, the vocals, the history, the innovation — to me, it’s a living, breathing, fast-picking art form. Here, in alphabetical order, are my 10 favorite bluegrass albums of 2005.
Blue Moon Rising, On the Rise (Lonesome Day)
While still a relatively new band on the scene, the musicians in the Southern-based Blue Moon Rising are definitely headed in the right direction. The songs — catchy and mostly original — are neither contrived nor too contemporary. Along with their instrumental talents and all-around good singing, these five guys would fit in nicely at any bluegrass festival.
Flatt & Scruggs, Foggy Mountain Jamboree (Columbia/Legacy)
Whether you’re a hardcore fan or just coming around to bluegrass, you can’t go wrong with this reissue of 1957′s terrific Foggy Mountain Jamboree. Even after repeated listens, I can’t get over how they blend so effortlessly, both vocally and instrumentally. From “Flint Hill Special” to “Reunion in Heaven,” there’s not a dull track to be found.
The Greencards, Weather and Water (Dualtone)
At the nexus of bluegrass, country and pop, this charming trio immediately win over such diverse audiences in concert. Luckily, their winning personality translates to this disc — even with several melancholy, yet melodic, songs. Not for nothing did Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson choose them to open their summer tour of minor league ballparks.
Clay Jones, Mountain Tradition (Rural Rhythm)
As the guitarist for the upbeat ensemble Mountain Heart, Jones knows about exuberant picking. On this boisterous solo project, he enlists all of his bandmates (scattered on various songs) to revive material by the masters (Flatt, Monroe, Scruggs, Carter Stanley), plus some well-chosen traditional instrumentals. If you prefer hard-driving ‘grass, dig in.
James King, The Bluegrass Storyteller (Rounder)
You think you’ve got it bad? Give a listen to these hard-luck characters, sung about with true conviction by Mr. King. He’s been known to stop halfway through a song to break down in tears — and no wonder. Whether or not these folks deserve their ill-fated demises, the emotional North Carolina native will leave you hanging on every word.
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, You Gotta Dig a Little Deeper (Rounder)
He’s a pioneer in gospel bluegrass, but this album focuses on Lawson’s secular side. The lively harmony vocals keep this disc moving, especially on the title track. (When Terry Baucom’s bass kicks in, it’s impossible not to sing along.) Notable songwriters include band members Jamie Dailey and Barry Scott, Pete Goble and even Porter Wagoner.
Phil Leadbetter, Slide Effects (Pinecastle)
Surrounding himself with bluegrass’ most popular pickers, Dobro player Leadbetter more than holds his own. Bluegrass radio has wisely picked up his soaring cover of Merle Haggard’s “California Cottonfields,” sung here by Shenandoah’s Marty Raybon. He also joins his father and son for a gorgeous rendition of “Closer Walk With Thee.”
Jim Mills, Hide Head Blues (Sugar Hill)
Rather than lyrics, the booklet offers four glossy centerfolds — of original prewar flathead five-string Gibson Mastertone banjos. Mills, who plays in Ricky Skaggs’ band, paired each song with an appropriate vintage model for a broad variety of textures and tones. An instrumental take on Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” is a highlight.
Larry Sparks, 40 (Rebel)
He’s been singing bluegrass professionally for four decades, thus the album title, so it seemed like an ideal time for Sparks to gather his musical friends and admirers. Thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, it’s still hard to beat Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski’s mournful harmonies on “John Deere Tractor.” This is as good as it gets.
Various Artists, Bluegrass Hits (Rounder)
Of all the compilations this year, this one offers the richest panorama of contemporary bluegrass. From Johnson Mountain Boys to the Grascals, the 20-song disc is essentially a mix tape from Rounder’s esteemed vault. Plus, the liner notes provide details on each artist — perfect for those with New Year’s resolutions to learn more about bluegrass.