Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Essential Bluegrass Discography - By Special Guest Blogger Brendan

Today we have a special guest appearance from Brendan of The Rising Storm, one of my favorite music blogs. The Rising Storm is a great place to discover lost gems in the genres of garage, country rock, psych folk, and psychedelic rock. If you haven't checked it out yet, be sure to get over there soon. Like me, Brendan is also a big fan of bluegrass music, and he's got a great record collection. So, without further ado, take it away Brendan...

The discography of bluegrass music is chock full of collections, compilations, box sets, and best-of's. Of course, you can't go wrong with The Music of Bill Monroe [Box Set], The Complete Columbia Stanley Brothers [Anthology], or 1956-1968 [Box Set] by the Osborne Brothers, but what's an LP hound to do? If you're like me, you dig your music in that long player, album-length-statement kinda format. So here are the classic and utterly essential bluegrass LPs that I have found so far:

The Country Gentlemen (1959) Country Songs Old And New (buy album)

Country Songs Old And New

The title of this album says it all about these boys, known for their ability to incorporate modern sounds in a traditional framework, a kind of gentle nod to progressive bluegrass. Only the Gentlemen could turn a Manfred Mann tune into a bluegrass standard (Fox on the Run). The perfect voices harmonizing on this historic record are nothing short of magic and the record is quality through and through.

The Country Gentlemen - Roving Gambler

Flatt & Scruggs (1961) Foggy Mountain Banjo (buy album)

Foggy Mountain Banjo

An instrumental blueprint. They might consider reissuing this one with the full album repeated at half speed, as many a banjo picker sat analyzing Scruggs' revolutionary lightspeed picking on this LP by slowing it down on their reel-to-reels. To put it in context, there's two styles of banjo picking: clawhammer, and Scruggs style. A big reverb sound with Earl leading the way on each tune, but marvelous contributions on dobro and fiddle throughout. With 12 songs ranging in length from 1:50 to 2:28, I have never heard a tighter set.

Flatt & Scruggs - Home Sweet Home

The Dillards (1963) Back Porch Bluegrass (buy album)

Back Porch Bluegrass

The Dillards are best known for their work as "The Darlings," a fictional group on the Andy Griffith Show that served to associate bluegrass with comedy in 'hillbilly' music, as well as their later work on the groundbreaking Wheatstraw Suite and Copperfields albums – early country rock staples with strong bluegrass elements. The Dillards' 1963 debut proves their bluegrass blood runs red deep as they tear through some of the purest traditional bluegrass you can find. Must have been the hoppingest back porch in Salem, MO.

The Dillards - Reuben’s Train

The Kentucky Colonels (1964) Appalachian Swing (buy album)

Appalachian Swing

An absolute must for six-stringers. The Colonels could sing, but on this all-instrumental record they let Clarence take it. Clarence White, country music's coolest guitar player, redefined the rules of what the guitar could do on this record. It's not just virtuosity, but a sexiness to his licks that separates him from the pack. For more KY Colonels, don't let the early-90s sleeve design of Long Journey Home deter you from investigation; this '64 live set is a serious cooker.

The Kentucky Colonels - I Am A Pilgrim

John Hartford (1971) Aereo-Plain


John is the man. Those somewhat skeptical of bluegrass will still love his music. Heck, anybody who gives him a proper chance loves his music. It edges on parody but delivers with real experience and heart. This site has previously covered John, but you can't stop finding more. Morning Bugle, Radio John, Mystery Below, Gum Tree, Mark Twang... His music is an inexhaustible treasure trove of glorious (and humorous) bluegrass joy.

John Hartford – With A Vamp In The Middle

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (1972) Will The Circle Be Unbroken (buy album)

Will The Circle Be Unbroken

You won't find this record excluded from any lists; it contains a healthy meeting of the greats riffing with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band like it were a big family reunion. That being said, I find the record is so packed with dialogue and asides that the flow of the album is somewhat hampered. It becomes more of an historical recording than a truly great record. I won't deny its essential status but I haven't felt the magic from this one yet.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band - Nine Pound Hammer

Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard (1973) Hazel & Alice (buy album)

Hazel & Alice

It wasn't always about progression and chops, as exhibited by the brilliant Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard on this 1973 record. They recorded a traditional album called Who's That Knocking in '65, but on Hazel & Alice they brought it way back to a heart wrenching Appalachian sound, with raw guitar, mountain tuned banjo, auto-harp parts and powerful vocal harmonies. Some tracks feature a full bluegrass combo, with the singers feeling all the more raucous. Watch them give Dr. Ralph a run for his money on this a cappella cut.

Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard - A Few More Years Shall Roll

J.D Crowe and The New South (1975) The New South (buy album)

J.D. Crowe & The New South

Just read the scoreboard: J.D. Crowe, Tony Rice, Bobby Slone (bass), Jerry Douglas, and Ricky Skaggs. This was the new style of powerhouse, all-you-can-handle-grass – the best players of the day just working it out together. There are only tasteful progressive licks here and this album was such a trailblazer that it sounds as fresh as any album put out in the last 20 years. Honestly, I can't think of any real traditional bluegrass coming after that doesn't sound something like this record.

J.D. Crowe and The New South - Old Home Place

Old & In The Way (1975) Old & In The Way

Old & In The Way

Another superpower lineup featuring Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Vassar Clements, and Peter Rowan, Old & In the Way's debut has been ridiculously out of print for way too long. One might think the Grateful Dead leader was just joking around playing that throwback hillbilly music, but that one would be wrong. Garcia was a first rate banjo player who got his start playing bluegrass, and this reverent album with beautifully penned originals is a must for grass and Dead fans alike.

Old & In The Way - The Hobo Song

New Grass Revival (1975) Fly Through The Country (buy album)

Fly Through The Country

Sam Bush is the king of newgrass. While I don't care much for his more new-agey material, his earlier work with Bluegrass Alliance and the New Grass Revival set the standard for all newgrass acts to follow. This record is the perfect bridge between trad-grass and new. A few numbers exhibit those classically inspired runs and quick start-stops that are just about as progressive as my tastes have yet allowed. The New Grass Revival, however, simply must be acknowledged. Here's Good Woman's Love – not to portray the sound of newgrass, but to show off John Cowan's killer vocals.

New Grass Revivial - Good Womans Love

Doc Watson (1976) Doc and the Boys (buy album)

Doc and the Boys

This one feels like bluegrass meets roots rock, and it feels real good. As a boy, Doc practiced fiddle lines off the radio with his guitar, inventing the technique of flatpicking. He paved the way with a straight-ahead style that never approached unnecessary flair. I was lucky enough to see Doc Watson perform in NYC last year, and he is still the cleanest and nicest flatpicker alive. I'd say this 1976 slab is as far as the purists will let it go. Bluegrass with drums? But it's Doc!

Doc Watson – Little Maggie

Del McCoury Band (2001) Del and the Boys (buy album)

Del and the Boys

A modern day classic. I realize how out of step my chronology is here, but I have to include this more recent album because the Del McCoury band is the sharpest traditional bluegrass band out there today. Del is a legend, and this is the album that converted me. All Abooooaaarrd! 99% chance you'll find me at the first annual DelFest this year, hawking Del Dogs. Listen to that voice!

Del McCoury Band - Vincent Black Lightning 1952

Bonus: Bluegrass Country Soul (1971) Documentary Film (buy DVD)

Bluegrass Country Soul

If you've read this far you've probably already seen this fantastic documentary of one of the first bluegrass festivals. If you've read this far and haven't seen it? Stop reading and go get it. It features just about everyone with a fantastic performance of Ruby by The Osbornes, a young Del, and some great footage of the rarely spotted Japanese band, Bluegrass 45. It's an amazing document, and an excellent conversion tool for those near the edge.

Finally, I'd like to add that bluegrass is a community-based music. As in jazz, there are standards and forms that everybody knows, and it's a great deal of fun to play with friends and even strangers. So pick up that axe, start ripping some G-runs, and hit up your closest festival this summer. You'll appreciate these recordings all the more.

A million thanks to Paul for letting me post this list here; opinions expressed herein are my own and not necessarily those of STWOF.

Obviously, I've missed much, but I want it all! If you wish to add to this list, please tell us your essential bluegrass favorites in the comments.


Thomas said...

aaahhh, yes summer is around the corner and bluegrass is all about the summer festivals...

great list to get going here. I would especially recommend John Hartford's Aeroplane. Definitely got a lot of my friends into bluegrass.

some unnamed greats: Red Allen & Frank Wakefield, Jimmy Martin, The Bluegrass Album Band (crappy name, but real tight playing by the best in the genre), David Grisman ("Home is Where the Heart Is" is a fantastic traditional bluegrass record), Muleskinner (the acoustic live show is WAY better then the electric studio album), Bela Fleck's instrumental album "Drive".

Also, I can't stress enough Bill Monroe, especially his early stuff.


brendan said...

Came across that Bluegrass Album Band doing research for this. I think that's the one I'll check out next. I'm also looking to get Good 'n Country Music by Jimmy Martin. Man there's a ton.

Thx for all the great tips, Thomas!

Anonymous said...

Excellant post for this novice bluegrass fan. Thanks!

boyhowdy said...

Lookin' to check out Jimmy Martin more myself -- seems like his songs were on everyone's set list at this year's Joe Val Bluegrass Fest.

And your note that bluegrass is community-based music is right on; I was chatting with some folks at Joe Val who agreed that bluegrass may be the only form of music we know where the vast majority of true fans also play the music, and generally do it well, too. Where else but a bluegrass festival can you wander the halls/fields and find a thousand impromptu jam sessions going on, many of which approach to the caliber of what's on the mainstage?

Glad to see some old favorites on the roster here, though. No need to apologize for jumping the years so dratically to feature Del McCoury; I saw Del with his sons and Bela two summers ago, and it was amazing.

For more "modern classic"-level (and perhaps slightly less traditional) bluegrass bands/musicians with exceptionally high musical standards and ability, I highly recommend the Steeldrivers, Infamous Stringdusters, Uncle Earl, Claire Lynch, and anything with Casey Dreisen fiddlin' in it.

And why isn't there any gospel bluegrass on your list? Old-schooler David Parmley is a good place to start, here.

One more hint: I usually check out the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) site for each year's award-winners, and plan festival attendance accordingly.

gary stuwart said...

kudos to brendan for this collection. he reminds crustheads like me not to hold too tightly to the forlorn strains of ralph and carter, since bluegrass has such a broad, inviting spectrum. perhaps not his intention, but he also tweaks the pro- or anti- nashville thing here, focusing on the potential of that richly endowed but often uninspiring city. case in point (though many here apply) the Doc and the Boys album. this thing was recorded for united artists, featured texas-western-swinger johnny gimble (fiddle), a then up-and-coming mega producer (garth fundis), what i'll bet was an attempt at a commercial single ("southern lady"), and yes, gulp, drums. but it flat out cooks (!!), and is a superb example of what happens when the creative process dictates the pace of a talented recording session. part studio, part live, part rag, blues, fiddle reel and even's all doc, merle, and the frosty mornin' band. grab it if you can find it!

brendan said...

I love gospel. Thanks for starting me off on a more serious investigation. Starter point is just the ticket.

yep that Doc + Boys is one of a kind. always in the mood for it. btw, love the hair. and thanks for the needledrop!