It's hard to define bluegrass sometimes. That's not necessarily because a variety of acoustic music comes close to that hallowed musical style, but rather because the traditionalists are famously rigid in their views. I'm not quite so strict, although all of these entries do include banjo. From picking legend Earl Scruggs to the boisterous young men in Old Crow Medicine Show, here are the 10 bluegrass albums I enjoyed the most in 2004, listed in alphabetical order.
Melonie Cannon, Melonie Cannon (Skaggs Family Records): This splendid debut falls in the beautiful valley between bluegrass and country music. Cannon's expressive voice is a magnificent instrument, right at home alongside the fine production from Ronnie Bowman and a cavalcade of A-list pickers. Don't miss this one.
Rob Ickes (With Blue Highway), Big Time (Rounder): Ickes (rhymes with "bikes") has won seven IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) instrumentalist awards, but rather than strut, he shares billing with his Blue Highway bandmates. Drawing largely on traditional tunes and his own material, his somber arrangement of "Matt Hyland" is a standout.
Alison Krauss & Union Station, Lonely Runs Both Ways (Rounder): Until this album, I was merely a casual fan of Krauss. Now, I'm over the top. Some say she chooses too many sad songs, but those are the tracks I always go back to. R.L. Castleman offers four striking songs, and the band members provide stellar support, as always.
Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum, Guest House (Hightone): Alone in my car, I can wail "Willie Poor Boy." But for the rest of the album, I leave it to this California couple to sing about Bill Monroe's parents, tramps and hawkers and hearts on the mend. There's snow on the cover, but the music is warm and cozy.
Alecia Nugent, Alecia Nugent (Rounder): In 2004, she played the Opry several times, opened a concert for Sam Bush at the Ryman Auditorium and scored an IBMA nomination as an emerging artist. When festival season rolls around, circle her name on the schedule. When she sings about pain, I feel it -- thank goodness!
Old Crow Medicine Show, O.C.M.S. (Nettwerk): They're quick to admit they're not bluegrass, and they're probably right. Their picking doesn't try to bowl you over, but it is invigorating. I've never seen so many pitchers of beer at an acoustic show before, but hey, they're introducing college kids to the genre.
Earl Scruggs, The Essential Earl Scruggs (Legacy): Do not take Earl Scruggs for granted! Yes, Bill Monroe invented bluegrass, but he didn't stand alone on that Opry stage. The Country Music Hall of Fame will honor Scruggs with a special exhibit in 2005, and he most certainly deserves it. A first-rate compilation of his work.
James Alan Shelton, Half Moon Bay (Rebel): A Clinch Mountain Boy, Shelton steps out of Ralph Stanley's spotlight for another lovely solo album. Of course, his acoustic guitar is the star here, blending with the genre's top musicians. It's a quiet record of mostly traditional tunes but always engaging.
Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Brand New Strings (Skaggs Family Records): Skaggs is serious about his bluegrass, but he's not above introducing a few comical characters -- like the old woman who still knows how to party and the bluesman who turns to bluegrass when he falls in love. The musicianship here is exceptional too, of course.
Various Artists, All-Star Bluegrass Celebration (Rainmaker/Sugar Hill): An astounding concert album with the top stars from bluegrass (Scruggs, Skaggs, Krauss, Del McCoury, Ralph Stanley) and country (Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Travis Tritt). If you've been thinking about exploring the genre but don't know where to start, pick up this album.