Every year, I fall more in love with bluegrass music. For the most part, the veterans like Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs offered the most listenable albums in 2003, although upstarts like Andy Leftwich and Shawn Lane showed much potential stepping out for solo turns. Rhonda Vincent and Don Rigsby avoided the same ol' topics -- no cabins on the hill -- lending them a unique perspective and personality. Meanwhile, Randy Howard's posthumous album continually breaks my heart, yet should I reach my golden years, I hope that I still have the energy of Jim & Jesse. But if not, may the angels sound as blissful as Blue Highway and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver.
Here are my favorite bluegrass albums of 2003, in alphabetical order:
Blue Highway, Wondrous Love (Rounder)
These five guys take it straight to church. With sacred songs from the Carter Family, Bill Monroe, George Jones and a hymnal or two, this wondrous album should appeal to those who snapped up Randy Travis' recent records but don't mind the tradition of bluegrass. Melodic and reverential, "Seven Sundays in a Row" sure sounds like a country hit to me.
Randy Howard, I Rest My Case (Sugar Hill)
A hugely respected fiddler who died in 1999, Howard leaves I Rest My Case as his legacy. Even without the sad circumstances, the astonishing music will move you. Also, never let it be said that studio musicians can't play with feeling. This version of Dan Fogelberg's "Leader of the Band" -- sung by Don Rigsby -- could not be lovelier.
Jim & Jesse, 'Tis Sweet to Be Remembered (Pinecastle)
Jim McReynolds couldn't summon his famous tenor harmonies in the weeks before he died of cancer. That's why his brother, Jesse, lifted previous vocals and mixed them into the duo's final album. Far from a sentimental farewell, it's as feisty as anything out there. And when folks ask why I love living where I do, all I have to do is play "Tennessee."
Shawn Lane, All for Today (Rebel)
Softly and tenderly, Lane emerges from Blue Highway with this solo debut, possessing a soothing voice and skillful mandolin playing. Despite the bluegrass arrangements, the melodies and lyrics remind me of country music in the early 1990s -- meaningful, catchy and clean. Barry Bales, Ronnie Bowman, Jerry Douglas and Larry Sparks all pitch in.
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Thank God (Self-released, distributed by Crossroads)
It's the supreme vocal harmonies that set Lawson and company apart from the pack. The young men in his band can surely play, but their harmonies are heavenly. For this project, Lawson revisits gospel favorites from past decades, written by heavyweights like Carter Stanley, the Louvin Brothers, Willie Nelson, Don Reno and Fred Rose. Bless them!
Andy Leftwich, Ride (Skaggs Family)
At 21, Leftwich stands among the most talented bluegrass musicians of his generation. Along with his astute skills on mandolin and fiddle, Leftwich shows a knack for composing and producing. He doesn't sing, but who cares? Currently a hired man in Ricky Skaggs' Kentucky Thunder, this young man has plenty of solo potential.
Tony Rice, The Bluegrass Guitar Collection (Rounder)
Yes, fiddles and banjos are most closely associated with bluegrass, but guitarists deserve their due, too. With this pristine retrospective, Rice proves that he's among the best ever. Ron Block wrote the respectful liner notes, and Rice himself provides insightful commentary on each track, as well as a touching essay about his trusty Martin guitar.
Don Rigsby, The Midnight Call (Sugar Hill)
If you like bluegrass haunted by maternal ghosts and family murderers, this one's right up your dark alley. Rigsby's soaring tenor is a powerful weapon, and he surrounds himself with strong players here. Marvelous musicianship and astute storytelling, too. For those still missing the old Lonesome River Band, Ronnie Bowman provides harmonies.
Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Live at the Charleston Music Hall (Skaggs Family)
Yes, it's a live album. But, no, it's not a hits package. Instead, Skaggs and his able crew deliver a bushel of lively, mostly new tunes. Personal favorites include the fast and furious "Black Eyed Suzie," the back-to-basics (and Grammy-nominated) "Simple Life" and the all-time classic "Uncle Pen." Returning to bluegrass was clearly a smart decision
Rhonda Vincent, One Step Ahead (Rounder)
Last, but definitely not least. In fact, she should probably be first. Vincent possesses a passionate alto that's perfect for the songs she's written. Winning her fourth IBMA award in a row for female vocalist in 2003, there's no end to her reign in sight. She's easily the hardest-working woman in bluegrass and deserves every bit of attention she's earned.