One of the double edges of my recently begun avocation is the drastically increased inflow of music to my fingertips (and ears, obviously). There is so much music being produced today, even in the smallest of genres, that it can be impossible to keep up with it all, much less spending time thoroughly absorbing it. Equally exciting is that the level of quality seems to have risen across the board. Artists on indie productions, small labels and large entities are often indistinguishable from each other in terms of technical quality and skill level.
So, the following list is a series of 14 of my favorites from the year. It’s not a best of. It’s not even strictly Bluegrass, though it largely focuses there. Since there are quite a few, I’ll only briefly hover over each title. Be sure to tune in to Bama Bluegrass and Flashpoint Bluegrass Radio on Jan 6 & 8, respectively, and I’ll be featuring songs off several of these CDs (and a few more). I’ll put the times and addresses at the bottom of the post for your convenience. Now… to the list…
In the last few years, there have been three (at least) highly important Bluegrass Cds from an historical, as well as musical, perspective. 2015’s Orthophonic Joy and two that are on this post. The first of those two is Mac Wiseman- I Sang the Song. Mac Wiseman continues to live an amazing life. He has seen and been a part of popular recorded music from the infancy of the industry from several different perspectives. Wiseman, Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz created an astounding musical biography in this project. It remains worthy of much attention and frequent, repeated listening.
Chris Jones and the Night Drivers- Made to Move is one of my favorite CDs of the year. The group’s preceding CD Run Away Tonight had done so well and had given Jones’ group so much attention that some were doubtful the group would overcome the seemingly sudden departure of banjoist extraordinaire Ned Luberecki back in 2016. This CD, the songs, the ensemble and Gina Clowes’ contributions on banjo and vocals quickly dispelled any fears along those lines. A very dynamic project, the NDs give fresh takes on Dark Hollow and a wonderful old Johnny Rodriguez tune (You Always Come Back to Hurting Me) and present some new tunes such as All the Ways I’m Gone and I’m A Wanderer. The latter (written by band member Jon Weisberger, Thomm Jutz and Charley Stefl) is, in my opinion, one of the best crafted I’ve heard in some time and remains fresh almost a year after first hearing. Every cut fits perfectly in the whole of the project and the project fits perfectly into the whole of bluegrass life for 2017 and beyond.
Darin and Brooke Aldridge- Faster and Farther February also brought this gem. Sometimes you can listen to a group’s newest project and it can hit you as being flat or as if the artist is trying to find their way or force something. This CD explodes out of the gate and the Aldridges are going much faster and farther than they have been before.
Larry Cordle- Give Me Jesus
Just in time for Easter, Larry Cordle gave us a great gift. This CD had been in the works for a while but was delayed a bit due to some serious health issues Larry faced in 2016-17. The end result was a beautiful mix of new, original recordings, some re-recordings and some cover material. If you like great Gospel music, this needs to find a way into your library. Larry’s cancer remains in remission at this point, by the way. Even more to be thankful for!
Here’s there first diversion from Bluegrass. I didn’t ‘get’ this project when I first heard it. That’s not all that unusual- sometimes I have to work on shaking the dust out in order to be able to listen well. The other thing is that while I am aware of a lot of the music that Marty points to in tribute in this project, those reference points were not a part of my musical makeup. I appreciated what was going on here, but I didn’t really comprehend it. It took the combination of listening a few times and seeing the group perform a lot of the music live for it to click for me. Once I gave over to it, it became a wonderful journey.
Originally the sidemen working around JD Crowe on the album called Flashback, the newly reunited group calling themselves Flashback did an astounding job on this project. Though Phil Leadbetter has since announced that he’s leaving the road in order to work at home, the group has a new CD coming out in early 2018. If you like straight ahead Bluegrass and well crafted originals, check this one out.
This CD had a staggered release from March to June. Once the whole thing was available, it was clear that there was a new manifestation for the word masterpiece. At 85 years old, Bobby was wondering if he had something left to say. Even if he did, would people listen? Turns out the answer to both questions was a resounding yes! Alison Brown did a wonderful job creating a vehicle to support and highlight Osborne’s voice. I mentioned three important Bluegrass CDs earlier- this rounds out that trio. Having heard it, it is impossible to imagine the Osborne catalog without it. If you were going to add one Bluegrass CD from 2017 to your library, this would be the one.
And if you were going to add one non Bluegrass CD from 2017….
Glen Campbell’s last studio CD is, in a single word, amazing. Carl Jackson knew how to get the best from Glen and allow him to shine. There are many moments where the vocal quality is truly closer to 1977 than 2017. From straight ahead country to Jimmy Webb pop to the Jackson penned biographical tune Arkansas Farmboy, the project is balanced, heart rending and saturated in love.
Among the most consistent groups in Bluegrass, DLQ produced another winner with Life Is a Story. It’s a true album of snapshots from different lives. Great songs, great sounds. Between this and Chapter 3 (see below), Lawson certainly had a stellar year.
Perhaps Salley’s best album as an artist to date, Front Porch Philosophy is full of songs about life. Whether a ‘musical epiphany’ as described in The Night Flatt & Scruggs Played Carnegie Hall or a tribute to the folks that serve every day The Thin Blue Line, the songs on the CD are presented with all the craftsmanship we’ve come to expect from Salley along with a heaping helping of vocal passion and energy from the man himself.
This one caught me off guard. I was talking with Thomm Jutz about his CD (see below) and he mentioned this trio effort. I knew the writing, production and vocals would all be solid because of the people involved but this was truly a case of the the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes you need a particular project in your life though you don’t know which one until it finds you. This is one of a few like that for me this year.
That moment when you think an artist has arrived and then they go far beyond what you expected. Silence In These Walls is the natural continuation of Runaway Train, yet one we could not have seen from the outside listening in. The overall tone is sad, yet the songs are not self pitying. I simply can’t say enough good about the CD.
I was not expecting this project. I was occupied with other things when it arrived… My loss. When I finally to around to paying attention, I found I loved it. Though there are covers here, this is not merely rehash. It is an artist still honing his craft, visiting places both familiar and new.
When it all breaks down to basic elements, I am all about the song. Talent abounds and amazes, but the creation and iteration of something not previously constructed still amazes me. Thomm Jutz is a rare wonder when it comes to such things. There is plenty of talent on display, but he is smart enough to allow his (and others’) talent to support and project what the song needs and demands. Still enjoying this one.
The more I list here, the more I remember.I simply don’t have enough time to get to them all here. Some I highlighted elsewhere on the site. Several artists were interviewed on the radio show through the years as well. Hopefully, you caught ones that you were interested in. Having said that, there are a few more listed below you might also want to consider. I hope your journey is fascinating and the right projects find you!
Nora Jane Struthers- Champion
Amanda Shires- My Piece of Land
Alison Krauss- Windy City
Erin Enderlin- Whiskeytown Crier
Rhonda Vincent & Daryle Singletary- American Grandstand
Mike Bentley- All I’ve Got
Gina Clowes- True Colors
Grascals- Before Breakfast
Ned Luberecki- Take Five
Dale Ann Bradley -Dale Ann Bradley
Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers- The Story We Tell
Lawson & Williams- Chapter 3