Every year, my bond with bluegrass music grows stronger. The rhythms, the harmonies and the huge amount of talent in the bluegrass world are simply astonishing. However, I know I’m not an expert — but I do know what I like. Here, in alphabetical order by artist, are my 10 favorite bluegrass albums of 2006.
Michael Cleveland, Let ’Er Go Boys (Rounder)
My favorite fiddler. Yes, he can play super fast, too, but as he gently glides through the exquisite “Hopelessly in Love,” I am always stunned how this instrumentalist can say so much.
J.D. Crowe & the New South, Lefty’s Old Guitar (Rounder)
The harmonies on “Mississippi River Raft” are irresistible, and Crowe’s banjo picking is impeccable (of course). Fifty years in, J.D. Crowe is still the coolest guy in the room.
Tony Holt and the Wildwood Valley Boys, Daylight Burnin’ (Rebel)
Tony Holt sings lead while his father Aubrey handles tenor vocals and most of the vivid songwriting. “Whatever Happened to Ann,” an ode to lost love, could break your heart.
Alecia Nugent, A Little Girl … A Big Four-Lane (Rounder)
For her second album, she sings often about regret — living with it and trying to avoid it. The tragic revelation in “Where the Wheels Left the Road” still stops me in my tracks.
Bobby Osborne & the Rocky Top X-Press, Try a Little Kindness (Rounder)
I was instantly sold when this bluegrass legend attacked “Mansions for Me” — “There’s folks building hooooomes!” — yet this solo project boasts great mandolin picking, too.
Don Rigsby & Midnight Call, Hillbilly Heartache (Rebel)
Like a favorite book of Southern short stories, I feel like I know “Big Jim” and this album’s other intriguing characters, thanks in large part to Rigsby’s expressive vocals.
Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Instrumentals (Skaggs Family)
Can these guys play or what? With a swing in its step, “Missing Vassar” pays tribute to kindred spirit Vassar Clements while “Dawg’s Breath” enthusiastically showcases this exceptional band.
Jim Van Cleve, No Apologies (Rural Rhythm)
This fiddler fires it up on his solo debut, with a boost from his Mountain Heart bandmates and other outstanding pickers. “Fall Creek Falls” is especially beautiful and heartfelt.
Rhonda Vincent, All American Bluegrass Girl (Rounder)
She takes a chance on new songwriters — and it pays off. Bonus points for the shining Roy Acuff cover, “Precious Jewel.” Don’t miss the duets with Dolly Parton and Bobby Osborne.
Bradley Walker, Highway of Dreams (Rounder)
On his engaging debut, this Alabama native is drawn to sad story songs like “Love’s Tombstone,” and his expressive baritone makes you want to listen till the bitter end.
In the reissues and compilations category, a special shout-out goes to Sugar Hill Records, whose four-disc boxed set, A Retrospective, revisits the label’s first 25 years (1978-2003). Artists represented include Ricky Skaggs, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Doc Watson, Tony Rice, Hot Rize, the Seldom Scene, Sam Bush, Darrell Scott, Robert Earl Keen, Rodney Crowell, Nickel Creek, Dolly Parton and many more. It’s not all bluegrass, but it’s hard to argue with such a high level of musical integrity.
In addition, some of Doc & Merle Watson’s recordings for the Flying Fish label in the early 1980s are collected on Black Mountain Rag on Rounder Records. The album also includes a 1990 guitar trio recording of “Blackberry Blossom” with Doc Watson, Tony Rice and Norman Blake.
Other recommended “best of” packages include Blue Highway’s Lonesome Pine and the Boys From Indiana’s Good Time Blues, both on Rebel Records. That label also reissued Reno & Smiley’s hard-to-find 1971 album, Together Again, with insightful liner notes about the pioneering band written by Eddie Stubbs.