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2017's Best Bluegrass Albums: January to June

Donald Teplyske  |  July 2, 2017

We are half way through 2017, a good time to look back on some of the finest bluegrass released this year.

1. Mac Wiseman- "I Sang the Song: Life of the Voice With A Heart" (Mountain Fever)

With all due respect to the folks who have released excellent bluegrass and country albums this year, and those who will undoubtedly do so in the coming months, I am ready to name this our 2017 Americana/Roots album of the year.

An incredible undertaking by Peter Cooper and Thomm Jutz, the most important element of the thirteen songs comprising "I Sang the Song: Life of The Voice With A Heart" is the source material, Mac Wiseman himself. Wiseman was born in 1925 and recalls a time few of us can picture outside history books and re-runs of The Waltons. Wiseman is a man who knew A. P. Carter and has now had Sierra Hull share a song with him. Think about that for a half-a-moment.

"It ain't bragging if you've done it," asserts John Prine gently within the title track, revealing for the unaware that Wiseman performed alongside the acknowledged masters of 20th century roots music. A member of both The Foggy Mountain Boys and The Blue Grass Boys, as well as a charting, featured performer in his own right, Wiseman is a founder of the Country Music Association, and inductee to both the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame and the Country Hall of Fame. A label executive and producer-and one of the finest bluegrass gentlemen I've had the pleasure of encountering, however briefly- Wiseman was always far more than "just another young hillbilly."

None of which would matter if the recording was flawed. It isn't. The majority of these songs are obviously bluegrass, a few clearly country, and others find that sweet, magical spot between the two. Cooper and Jutz had the inspiration and wisdom to listen to and converse with Wiseman, finding in his stories threads to embroider the ten new songs created together to communicate a compelling narrative of anecdote.

Naturally, the singing is incredible throughout with familiar IBMA Male Vocalists of the Year beging featured: Shawn Camp, Buddy Melton, Junior Sisk, and Ronnie Bowman.These performances are expectedly outstanding, and the history-rich lyrics and eternal melodies provide galvanizing framework for blessed voices.

Justin Moses (fiddle, banjo, and Dobro) and Hull (mandolin) work with Jutz (guitar) and Mark Fain (bass) to serve as the house band, uniting to create a consistent instrumental environment. Cooper and Jutz harmonize on several tracks, providing further uniformity.

Within a song, Wiseman ("The Guitar," via Moses and Hull) takes us from receiving his first Sears Roebuck, ragtop box, to the eventual day he stopped "playing in G and singing in C." As the album unfolds, his experiences ("Barefoot 'Til After the Frost", "Three Cows and Two Horses") are revealed in a natural, homespun manner capturing the vernacular of his rural upbringing down to cold "feet just as red as a gobbler's snout."

"Simple Math," one of two sang by Americana icon Jim Lauderdale, details further experiences from Wiseman's youth following him into early gigs as a professional musician including his big break playing Molly O'Day sessions. Lauderdale, one of the most prolific and versatile vocalists working today, adroitly relates the simple truths of Wiseman's observations.

As compelling as the connections to Wiseman's life are across the album, the fact that each song stands independent released from context is indicative of their significance. The bluegrass chart hit "Going Back to Bristol," sung by Camp, radiates universal appeal, whether you've ever been near the border community, cut a side with Flatt & Scruggs, been near a Studebaker, or not.

Alison Krauss joins Wiseman on the closing benediction "'Tis Sweet to Be Remembered," one of his earliest successes, for a performance joining generations in hopeful love of music and life.

Wiseman drops in on a few of these numbers, providing a foundation for the lyrics and music, but also allowing those with the greatest of admiration to communicate his story through the voices of generations influenced by "The Voice With A Heart." For thirty-eight minutes, timeless memories are communicated. Through time, these performances will be shared to become part of our collective memory.

2. Chris Jones & the Night Drivers- "Made to Move" (Mountain Home)

A set of original bluegrass that is superior to the majority encountered.

The album kicks off with a healthy Chuck Berry vibe ("All the Ways I'm Gone,") that complements Jones' confident low-nsome vocal canter. Before the song is out, we've heard memorable, stellar picking from not only Jones, but mandolinist Mark Stoffel and co-producer Dobroist Tim Surrett. And things just continue to get better with each passing song.

Newest Night Driver Gina Glowes' vocal harmony contributions are noticed and appreciated, giving a new depth to the group's well-established sound. Her 5-string chops are obvious throughout, but especially on more reflective pieces such as the chart-topping "I'm A Wanderer" and "Living Without." "Last Frost" is the album's banjo instrumental, and it is a fully-developed musical landscape that the imaginative can read like a story. On this tune, bassist Jon Weisberger's tone is notable.

With his bold, baritone voice, Jones is easy to listen to and his mild-mannered approach to a song allows him to connect with listeners in a way some vocalists never master. A story song such as "The Old Bell" pulls one into its history within seconds, while the 'coming home' "Range Road 53" appeals in a similar manner if with increased tempo. "Silent Goodbye" may remind listeners of a previous Jones-Weisberger co-write, "Final Farewell."

Chris Jones & the Night Drivers are undoubtedly one of bluegrass music's strongest instrumental bands. Each of the musicians is a master of their craft, and together they produce a style of bluegrass that is most likely unique. With Jones as their lead singer, they are blessed with one of the strongest, most recognizable vocal stylists the music offers. Will 2017 finally be the year that the band are recognized by the International Bluegrass Music Association when it comes time to complete ballots? One hopes so, because they truly have earned it.

3. The Gibson Brothers- "In the Ground" (Rounder)

With a consistent approach to bluegrass instrumentation and arguably the finest country-influenced vocals in the genre, the Gibson Brothers have-for almost a decade now-been one of the top-performing acts.

Recording for more than twenty years, the Gibsons-Leigh (guitar) and Eric (banjo)-along with long-term bandmates Mike Barber (bass) and Clayton Campbell (fiddle), as well as veteran journeyman Jesse Brock (mandolin)-have delivered album after album of audience pleasing bluegrass, instilling their approach with solid country overtones.

For the first time, the duo have produced an album of entirely original material, a hallmark for any prominent bluegrass group. The songs comprising "In the Ground" have been allowed time to mellow and mature, some having had a gestation of years. The impact is obvious-these songs feature thoughtful themes and rhymes ("My Quiet Mind," among others) considered cadence ("Look Who's Crying," ditto), challenging and often surprising arrangements ("I Can't Breathe Deep Yet") and masterful instrumentation and singing.

While the connection to family traditions and historical birthright is as apparent in these thirteen songs as they are across most bluegrass albums, the Gibsons' innate and honed abilities elevate their creation above what is typically encountered along the bluegrass landscape.

It is their originality that emerges throughout this collection. Based as always in the traditions of country and bluegrass' influential generations, the songs reflect lives lived. Youthful ignorance and indiscretion ("Fool's Hill") exist alongside appreciation for the guitarist's consistent companion ("Friend of Mine.") Leaving home and finding one's own path ("Highway," a song with an unusual but appealing rhythm, and "Remember Who You Are," revealing a father's guidance) are balanced by the isolation and longing of "Everywhere I Go" and the desolation of "Homemade Wine." A story of personal salvation is revealed in "I Found a Church Today" while the title track may strike a meaningful chord for those who have lost connection to their land.

Perhaps their most personal recording, "In The Ground" doesn't wallow in self-reflection. By drawing on their experience, the Gibson siblings have crafted an album of universal appeal:all listeners are likely to see themselves revealed within a song or three, and will be able to identify with the sentiments offered and situations alluded. That considerable artistic heft is apparent within an eminently listenable collection of bluegrass is testament to the continued personal and creative maturation of its creators.

4. Danny Barnes- "Stove Up" (Wendell)

Whether causing a rabble with The Bad Livers decades back, making his own esoteric recordings, or receiving accolades as the 'Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo & Bluegrass' recipient in 2015, Danny Barnes has been a formidable force for much of the past quarter century.

"Stove Up" is both a distillation of Barnes' forty-five years on the banjo path and an expansion of his journey. Identified as a tribute to the legacy of banjo-stalwart Don Stover, this generous 17-cut, 50-minute largely instrumental album is likely the most 'across the plate' album Barnes has created. Working with producer guitarist Nick Forster, Barnes has crafted a masterful acoustic representation of tradition-based, bluegrass banjo.

Establishing the album's sincerity of intent are a pair of Stover numbers, his signature "Black Diamond" and the rollicking "Rockwood Deer Chase." Joined by Chris Henry (mandolin,) Jason Carter (fiddle,) and Mike Bub (bass,) on additional songs associated with Stover including "Old Liza Jane," this bluegrass quintet gives every appearance of having played together for years.

Taking bluegrass traditions in his own direction, Barnes re-records a few of his stellar tunes including "Isotope 709," whose destination is never assured despite repeated listening, and "Charlie," a feller who gives the old-time rounders a run for their goods. Barnes' classic "Get It While You Can," has him switching over to 12-string.

Apparent on "Stove Up," is Barnes' enthusiasm for the soul of bluegrass and its related traditional cousins. "Eight More Miles to Louisville" recognizes Grandpa Jones, whereas "Bill Cheatum" and "John Hardy" are heard as tribute to those who have mastered the banjo-fiddle duet in competitions across the continent. "Flint Hill Special" reminds us of both Earl Scruggs and John Hartford. "Fireball" and "Foggy Mountain Special" also acknowledge Scruggs' influence, while "Blue Ridge Express" comes from the less familiar Eddie Shelton. "Beggar's Banquet's" "Factory Girl" is revealed as an old-time bluegrass song.

"Stove Up" is a soulful album, one that drips with passion, substance, and excellence: it takes the listener on a banjo journey that extends ones understanding of bluegrass. Danny Barnes has never sounded so assured and intrepid.

5. Big Country Bluegrass- "Let Them Know I'm From Virginia" (Rebel)

Big Country Bluegrass, out of Independence, Virginia, make a substantial promise on the lead track to their "Let Them Know I'm From Virginia" album: Tonight we're coming to your town, Going to fire up that bluegrass sound. Gonna tune the old banjo, play like Scruggs and Bill Monroe because, Tonight we're burning down the barn. -Tracy O'Connell, "Burn the Barn"

On this celebration of thirty years as an increasingly prominent bluegrass powerhouse, Big Country Bluegrass continue their industry ascension.

Built around Tommy (mandolin) and Teresa Sells (guitar and vocals, mostly tenor harmony,) Big Country Bluegrass have slowly chipped at barriers to become one of the most successful charting groups within the Rebel Records roster.

Boasting the powerful lead vocals of Eddie Gill (guitar) and exceptional playing from both Tim Laughlin (fiddle and harmony) and John Treadway (banjo and harmony,) as well as rock steady acoustic bass from Tony King, the group hits their 30th anniversary stronger than ever. Big Country Bluegrass make excellent song choices, largely eschewing 'grassifying country hits in favor of revealing under-heard, quality songs.

Plowing through the tunes, Big Country Bluegrass rarely stops to catch their collective breath. With Gill's voice propelling them forward, the group's forte is most obviously straight-ahead 'grass. "Burn the Barn," "Me and Becky," and "Detroit Blues" are full-bore in presentation. More subtle are the numbers Teresa Sells fronts, the homespun "Waste Not, Want Not," and the sentimental "Flowers on Daddy's Grave."

When singing songs of faith ("Let Me Tell You One More Time About Jesus" and "Yes, I See God") they do so with obvious conviction and belief. A pair of Tom T. and Dixie Hall songs, both familiar ("The Old Crooked Trail" and "If I Ever Get Home") are mid-set highlights, with the title track bringing proceedings to a suitable close.

There is nothing fancy or headline grabbing about Big Country Bluegrass. Grounded in the Jimmy Martin tradition, they seemingly become more confident and competent with each recorded release. "Let Them Know I'm From Virginia" will satisfy fans of the group; those who have overlooked Big Country Bluegrass are encouraged to reconsider.

Those are my favorite bluegrass albums of 2017, so far. Enjoy your holiday weekend.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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