I am quite poor at making awards predictions. I usually get caught 'pulling' for a favourite and ignoring the obvious choice with the best chance of winning-I do the same thing with Hell's Kitchen: my fave finishes second. Take it to the bank, every time.
Until this week. Yes, Ryan won the unrealistic cooking competition, and I had been hoping for her since the earliest episodes. So, maybe this time I have a better than 20% chance of picking the Grammy Award winning bluegrass album.
The 2017 Grammys will be given out on Sunday, and as is typical the list of bluegrass nominees is quite strong. What is significantly impressive about the scope of the Bluegrass Grammy nominees is that most shades of bluegrass are represented- an excellent mainstream, straight up the middle contemporary representation, bluegrass gospel, a reverent and sparking tribute to bluegrass legends, an homage to the songwriter and bluegrass's ability to adapt other sounds to 'grass, and a 'big tent' outfit. Also impressive is the balance of male/female within the nominated albums, and the inclusion of (relative) youth within select nominees. It could be argued that Grammy voters have a better grasp on quality bluegrass albums than those making the decisions for last fall's IBMA awards.
I reviewed three of the albums, heard four of them. And for me, the choice is easy.
The nominees are, with excerpts from my reviews:
Blue Highway "Original Traditional"
"Original Traditional," Blue Highway's eleventh, continues the venerable group's most recent blueprint: original music written or co-written by band members along with a single traditional song. The album's title alludes to the group's tendency to bridge the generations of bluegrass through recognition and reverence for the roots of the music while ensuring a contemporary, original perspective is always present.
With three formidable lead vocalists and key songwriters and an instrumental lineup as strong as has ever been staged, Blue Highway is one of the top bands in the business.
"Don't Weep For Me"-essentially "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby" meets "Echo Mountain" minus the dog-is a strong lead song. The rest of the 38 minute album reveals the accustomed cast of bluegrass fellows who drink too much ("Water From the Stone,") hold onto childhood trauma too long ("The Story of My Life,") and lose a good woman's love because of it all ("If Lonesome Don't Kill Me.")
Still, Blue Highway isn't a band favouring one-dimensional songs, and none of those songs mentioned exist without shades of gray. In Shawn Lane and Gerald Ellenburg's album closing number, Blue Highway revisit the good ole days at "The Top of the Ridge" while writing what sounds like either an elegy or (in darker eyes) a note of suicide. "She Ain't Worth It," in hands other than Tim Stafford and Steve Gulley, might have been just another song of fateful revenge; their protagonist thinks a little longer about his predicament-rather than grabbing his .44, he sits and "bathe(s) in the afterglow."
"She Ain't Worth It" swings more than a little, and "Last Time I'll Ever Leave This Town" provides the instrumentalists room to showcase their offerings. "Water From the Stone" has a pleasing and inspirational gospel quartet arrangement, while the a cappella treatment of "Hallelujah" is just showing off and seems a fine message to the IBMA: Why exactly aren't we named Vocal Group of the Year annually?
I am sure I am not the only listener thrilled to hear a song begin with, "In North Carolina, in the County of Wilkes, there's a tale of deception, murder, and guilt. I'll spare no compassion, the truth I will tell, Let God alone judge me, this side of hell." From those words, one knew where Tim Stafford and songwriting partner Bobby Starnes were going.
"Wilkes County Clay" is a mournful song, with Lane's fiddle colouring the song much as one imagines the instrument did Tom Dula's final moments. While the narrator's identify isn't clear, the song is an agreeable telling of the tale. The lyrical choices made ("She hid like a panther in the black of the night, And killed Laura Foster with a bone handle knife") raises this above typical bluegrass fare.
"Original Traditional" is another outstanding bluegrass album from Blue Highway. They make it seem easy: forced listening to the number of less-than-adequate bluegrass albums available proves that it isn't. Blue Highway is a great band, one that has been contributing fresh insight into the bluegrass spectrum for more than two decades. That they continue to rise to the level they do, never taking the easy way, never delivering less than stellar material, is testament to the importance they place on their legacy.
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver "Burden Bearer"
I wasn't overly impressed by "Burden Bearer." Too much of the same type of bluegrass gospel fare across the disc. A song at a time is fine; a whole disc of these arrangements and over-wrought songs made me sleepy.
Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands "The Hazel and Alice Sessions"
Like Hazel & Alice, Laurie Lewis is bonafide.
I'm told that Laurie Lewis has, with others, led the charge to have Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, that induction hasn't yet happened. One wonders, why?
I've also been told there is a faction who believes Alison Krauss must be the first female artist/bandleader elected to the Hall. Fair perhaps, but dang short-sighted. Hazel and Alice definitely deserve a place among the heroes of the music, and one could make a convincing argument that Lewis herself also deserves consideration for inclusion in bluegrass music's most hallowed hall.
These powerful bluegrass forces come together on Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands' "The Hazel and Alice Sessions," one of the strongest releases of this past year.
With songs drawn from 1965's "Who's That Knocking" through to Gerrard's 2002 masterpiece "Calling Me Home," a full half of the songs are from the "Pioneering Women of Bluegrass" anthology (a collection of their 1965 and 1973 recordings,) with a spattering culled from two '70s Rounder albums and an additional Dickens' release.
The album kicks off with the energy of "Cowboy Jim," a song Dickens wrote for the first album based around a scattered lyric partially remembered by her father. The album continues on, exploring the many shades of love, devotion, loss, faith, and heartbreak one would expect from a classic bluegrass set. "James Alley Blues," one of the few songs here not written by either Dickens or Gerrard, contains a couple brilliant lines of insight including, "Could have a much better time if men weren't so hard to please;" joined by vocal guest Aoife O'Donovan, Lewis retains the a capella arrangement to most excellent effect.
Tom Rozum is not only one of bluegrass' most secure mandolinists, but he is a fine vocalist. He is featured taking a couple leads, doing justice to "Who's That Knocking?" This decision confirms the gender-neutrality of the finest music, songs that reveal themselves no matter who is taking the lead and conveying the story. He also fair nails "I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling," a tipping of the collective hat to Mr. Monroe.
Perhaps Dickens' greatest achievement, is there a finer song capturing the truth that is the "Working Girl Blues?" Lewis' rendition is stellar, mournful yet spirited with Lewis' fiddle conveying equal parts pride and misery. That Gerrard offers up the harmony here makes the experience that much more fulfilling; not surprisingly, it is this song that best captures the spirit of the original recordings. The further treat here is a previously unheard third verse that Dickens once recited to Lewis.
The Right Hands are Rozum (mandolin, mandola, and guitar) as well as Sauber (banjo and lead guitar on a single track) and Andrew Conklin (bass.) Fiddler Natiana Hargreaves is on five tracks, with Dobro from Mike Witcher on three, including "Working Girl Blues" and Gerrard's "Mama's Gonna Stay."
The album's vocal showpiece is "Let That Liar Alone," a song featured on the 1975 Rounder album "Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard." With Rozum driving the bus, this four-part vocal gospel song will leave listeners mesmerized; Harley Eblem drops in some bass vocals that are impressive. Avoid the devil, folks.
Laurie Lewis places Hazel Dickens with the bluegrass vocal big-three: Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley, and Lester Flatt. Alice Gerrard is a fearsome master of vocal folk, old-time, and bluegrass. "The Hazel and Alice Sessions" is not only a worthy tribute to a key bluegrass partnership, but an entertaining and formable collection of music. Doubtless, a strong contender for bluegrass album of the year.
Claire Lynch "North by South"
Never heard this one. I get the concept (songs written by well-known Canadians performed by a Southerner) and wish I had received it to review.
O'Connor Band with Mark O'Connor "Coming Home"
One of the new acts gaining extended coverage this past summer was Mark O'Connor' foray into leading a family band.
Mark O'Connor has long been one of the most recognizable fiddle voices in country and roots music, releasing a string of albums under his own name while guesting on countless recordings. In the O'Connor Band he is joined by his son Forrest (mandolin) and their partners Maggie (vocals and fiddle, and who has a little Alison Krauss in her voice) and Kate Lee (vocals and fiddle.) With three fiddle/violin players in the band, one isn't surprised at the prominence the instrument has in this neo-bluegrass/Americana band's repertoire.
My advance copy of the album came with no credit notes, but the album appears to be a mix of original ("Coming Home," a Forrest O'Connor composition is strong) and familiar material. Of the later, a stirring rendition of "Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man" is a highlight, as is a welcome interpretation of "Jerusalem Ridge," considered by some to be Bill Monroe's finest composition. The album is enjoyable if a little staid for my tastes- more MOR than the fiery sounds that fuel my soul. No doubt, expertly played and acutely produced, it features a few too many numbers a bit too smooth for me to grasp onto.
Who will I be hoping for on Sunday? Laurie Lewis & the Right Hands. But, if Blue Highway wins, I won't be too disappointed to again have my champion come in second. I've been pleased with how the voters have cast their ballots four of the past five years, and can live with all the winners since 2012. If either of these releases are named the recipient, a deserving album will have been recognized.