Here a piece I cowrote with Juli Thanki for PopMatters year-end lists. Check ou the article with audio/video links here.

For bluegrass fans, 2009 was a great year for music, a bad year for frugality. Though we’re only listing the Top Ten, there are many excellent artists and albums worthy of an honorable mention, including Donna Ulisse’s Walk This Mountain Down, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver’s Lonely Street, Don’t Turn Your Back by Dale Ann Bradley, and Alicia Nugent’s Hillbilly Goddess just barely missing the Top Ten. Don’t forget solid releases from the Del McCoury Band, the Emmit Nershi Band, Rhonda Vincent, and Dry Branch Fire Squad. And with several teen and 20-somethings releasing exciting and innovative music (Jeremy Garrett, Chris Pandolfi, and Sarah Jarosz, among others), it seems safe to say that the future of bluegrass is in good hands.


10. Dailey and Vincent
Brothers from Different Mothers
(Rounder; US: 31 Mar 2009; UK: 4 May 2009)

It’s hard to think of a more befitting title for Dailey and Vincent’s sophomore album; when the two sing together, it’s reminiscent of bluegrass’ best brother duos like the Monroes, Louvins, or Stanleys. Last year’s self-titled album took the bluegrass world by storm, and Brothers finds Jamie and Darrin picking up right where they left off. As with their first record, the influence of the Statler Brothers is readily apparent as the duo covers “Years Ago”, and after the wild success of gospel song “By the Mark”, Dailey and Vincent can’t be blamed for recording another Gillian Welch-penned number, “Winter’s Come and Gone”. However, if any song on Brothers is the successor to “By the Mark”, it’s closing track “On the Other Side”, which finds the guys wondering about the afterlife: “On the other side / Do you ever see me cry? / Do you know how much I miss you / Wish I could have said goodbye.” Juli Thanki

9. Steep Canyon Rangers
Deep in the Shade
(Rebel; US: 6 Oct 2009; UK: 6 Oct 2009)

This North Carolina quintet may be a fairly young band, but their star is rapidly on the rise. Produced by Ronnie Bowman, Deep in the Shade is the Rangers’ fourth album, and also their strongest one to date thanks to well-written songs and sharp picking. Guitarist/frontman Woody Platt’s smooth, radio-friendly vocals are a pleasure to hear, especially on standout track “Turn Up the Bottle”, while fiddler Nicky Sanders showcases his considerable skill on the instrumental track “Mourning Dove”. A cover of Merle Haggard’s “I Must Be Somebody Else You’ve Known” rounds out a damn fine album. Having recently finished a tour (complete with Letterman appearance) backing their most famous fan, Steve Martin, the Steep Canyon Rangers have come a long way since 2006, when they received the IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year Award. Juli Thanki

8. Steve Martin
The Crow
(Decca; US: 19 May 2009; UK: 27 Jul 2009)

The Crow was an album several decades in the making, since Steve Martin has been kinda busy these past 30 years. It was certainly worth the wait. Martin alternates between clawhammer and Scruggs-style picking, delivering captivating instrumentals and clever lyrics. Martin only sings on one track, “Late for School”, a fantastic tale reminiscent of Shel Silverstein’s children’s poetry. However, he does enlist the help of a few top-notch singers, including Dolly Parton and Vince Gill on the sweetly romantic “Pretty Flowers”. It’s not traditional bluegrass, but it’s not an album to overlook. Juli Thanki

7. Patty Loveless
Mountain Soul II
(Saguaro Road; US: 29 Sep 2009; UK: 28 Sep 2009)

Loveless had trepidations about the high expectations inherent in calling her new album a sequel to Mountain Soul, the 2001 string-band about-face that pulled her away from mainstream country and earned her an explosion of critical acclaim and new roots-music fans. She needn’t have worried—Mountain Soul II is every bit as satisfying as its predecessor. It’s a generous set that features ace standards (the traditional “Working on a Building” and a reworking of Harlan Howard’s “Busted”, among others), but also showcases Loveless’s newfound songwriting voice on songs like “Big Chance”, which easily stacks up with those classics. And, as always, Loveless demonstrates why she is one of the genre’s most stirring and instinctive singers, on both the record’s sweeping country ballads and barn-burning bluegrass rippers. Steve Leftridge

6. Bryan Sutton and Friends
Almost Live
(Sugar Hill; US: 14 Jul 2009; UK: 17 Aug 2009)

Sutton is the current guitar champ in the bluegrass pantheon of super-pickers, and his dazzling new album is loaded with astonishing displays of virtuosity, including “Big Island Hornpipe”, with Sutton trading foxy runs with mandolin savant Chris Thile and banjo powerhouse Noam Pikelny, and the Bela Fleck duet “Five Straw Suite”, a tangle of complex time signatures, impossible chord progressions, and spidery arpeggios. This kind of abstruse plonking might give casual bluegrass fans and purists pause, but the album takes a traditional shift to Hot Rize (“Church Street Blues”), swing (“Le Pont De La Moustache”—check out Sutton’s solo on this one: Lord have mercy), a guitar duo (the gentle “Dark Island” with Russ Barenberg), and an old-tyme clogger (“Wonder Valley Girls”, with Stuart Duncan and Tim O’Brien). For those interested in a consummate document of today’s preeminent acoustic instrumentalists, among whom Sutton’s place is secure, Almost Live is an indispensable set. Steve Leftridge

5. Ricky Skaggs
Solo: Songs My Dad Loved
(Skaggs Family; US: 15 Sep 2009; UK: 28 Sep 2009)

After his mainstream country success in the ‘80s, Ricky Skaggs’s dedication to bluegrass traditionalism has been ardent and complete. Furthermore, as the ringleader of Kentucky Thunder, a finishing school for some of bluegrass’s hottest pickers, Skaggs has been a terrific bandleader and collaborator. Not this time. Songs My Dad Loved is Skaggs’s first solo record—as in every instrument and voice on the record is his—and by that structure and in the selections indicated by the title, it’s the most intimate and personal bluegrass record of the year. Best moments: hearing Skaggs harmonize with himself on “The World Is Not My Home”, the blissful fiddle reverie of “Colonel Prentiss”, the misty banjo instrumental “Pickin’ in Caroline”, the brooding coda of “City That Lies Foursquare”, and two dozen other moments that only a master like Skaggs could pull off. Steve Leftridge

4. Claire Lynch
Whatcha Gonna Do
(Rounder; US: 25 Aug 2009; UK: 28 Sep 2009)

With a wealth of terrific material, including four originals and a selection of choice covers, Whatcha Gonna Do marks an assured, elegant return for veteran bluegrass vocalist Claire Lynch. The highlight is Jesse Winchester’s knee-bucklingly gorgeous “That’s What Makes You Strong”, a duet with the man himself, but throughout the album Lynch’s crisp, dewy vocals ring over a parade of ethereal folk, bluegrass-swing, and mountain waltzes. Bass all-star Mark Schatz helps define the record’s sonic template on rumblers like “Crazy Train” (no, not that one), but at other times, fragrant beauties like “The Mockingbird’s Voice” and “A Canary’s Song” follow a bird motif from unrequited love to a miner’s plight, backed by spare acoustic guitar patterns. Still, it’s the purity in Lynch’s vocal performance, especially on the delightful “Barbed Wire Boys”, that seals the deal on this charming record. Steve Leftridge

3. Gibson Brothers
Ring the Bell
(Compass; US: 5 May 2009; UK: 18 May 2009)

A year after their album Iron and Diamonds topped PopMatters’ “Best of Bluegrass” list, Eric and Leigh are back again. The past year has seen a significant personnel change (mandolinist Rick Hayes left the band for a career in luthiery and was replaced with Joe Walsh), but these guys are sounding better than ever, and it’s certainly reflected in the chart-topping success they’ve seen in ‘09. Beginning with “I Know Whose Tears”, a song based on a poem by Rudyard Kipling, and ending with Leigh’s mournful sharecropping song “Bottomland”, Ring the Bell is based in bluegrass traditions, yet simultaneously pushes the genre’s boundaries, exemplified in the loving cover of Tom Petty’s “Angel Dream”. Juli Thanki

2. Sam Bush
Circles Around Me
(Sugar Hill; US: 20 Oct 2009; UK: 26 Oct 2009)

Newgrass king Sam Bush, after a decade of watching jamgrass noodlers take his progressive trailblazing further into left field, pulled back this year with his most traditional set in a decade. Slammin’ Sammy still offers plenty of what makes him a legend: whirling-dervish mandolin solos (“Blue Mountain”) and nostalgic Telluride Transcendentalism (“Circles Around Me”). But mostly Sam favors old-fashioned, high-lonesome ballads like “Midnight on the Storm” and hotfooting cookers like “Roll on Buddy, Roll On”, both duets with Del McCoury. And on “Whisper My Name”, Sam trades off with banjoist Scott Vestal and guitarist Stephen Mougin on some of the most blistering bluegrass breaks of the year, proving that Sam has circled around in still-peak form with material strong enough to keep summer festival crowds spinning for years to come. Steve Leftridge

1. Adam Steffey
One More for the Road
(Sugar Hill; US: 22 Sep 2009; UK: 26 Oct 2009)

Coveted sideman and session musician Adam Steffey takes center stage and the Number One spot on our list with an album that’s an absolute joy to hear. Steffey, joined by an all star roster of guest musicians and singers including Alison Krauss, Chris Stapleton, Ronnie Bowman, and Dan Tyminski, delivers a collection of solid originals and well-chosen, beautifully sung covers. Steffey’s weathered vocals are a perfect counterpoint to the pure tones of his mandolin, but he’s more than happy to share the spotlight, most notably when he lets Bowman shine on a stunning version of “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” that can easily stand next to Kris Kristofferson’s original. One More for the Road is a must-listen for fans of bluegrass, country, and/or acoustic music; don’t let this one pass you by. Juli Thanki

Read more reviews here, and you can follow my Tweets at twitter.com/steveleftridge, where I'll post current listens, review links, live-event coverage, and more.

Views: 347

Comment by Adam Sheets on January 1, 2010 at 7:03am
I don't keep up with bluegrass as much as I should, but the four or so on here that I own are certainly great. Now I'll have to check out a few of the others...
Comment by Jim Moulton on January 2, 2010 at 1:48am
Wow,
I have some of the same on my top ten, Adam Steffeys' CD was excellent, Patty Loveless's new Mountain Soul was an aural delight, great acoustic sound, don't care for the Gibson Brothers, I love Bryan Sutton, but Almost Live just did not work for me.
Comment by Thad Komorowski on January 2, 2010 at 5:35am
I've been avoiding Steve Martin's album. After reading the synopsis here, I'll probably check it out.
Comment by Tim Timberlake on January 5, 2010 at 11:34am
A well-written and accurately insightful list...I have all but Claire's and the Gibsons' projects and find your assessments spot-on. The only glaring omission was Sarah Jarosz' brilliant Song Up In Her Head. She deserved more than 'bubbling under' status. I Miss No Depression a lot but am glad it lives on...online.

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.