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Fervor Coulee's Favorite Bluegrass Albums of 2023

Donald Teplyske  |  December 9, 2023

Each December I take some time to consider my favorite roots albums of the year, and I am pleased to continue the tradition. Usual disclaimers—I can only consider albums I either received for review, purchased, or acquired via industry-provided download; these are MY favorite albums of the year, not the 'best' (well, I think they are the best, but...); and while I worked on the rankings, tomorrow may provide a different results–these are my favorites of the year today, but music isn't made to be ranked.

Here are Fervor Coulee's (that's me, Donald) favorite bluegrass albums of 2023. I pretty solid year, in my opinion. I do not hear as many complete bluegrass albums as I once did: moving house three times in a decade tends to get you dropped off label servicing lists. If your favorite isn't here, feel free to recommend it to me and do your own list.

1 Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway- "City of Gold" With releases like this, Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway are poised to continue their hard-earned ascension to the pinnacle of their bluegrass community.

2 The Gibson Brothers- "Darkest Hour" Released early in the year, and as such was almost overlooked this week while reviewing the year's bluegrass bounty. Chris Jones quips that Bluegrass music wouldn't exist without brothers who hated each other. I am confident that accurate generalization doesn't extend to Eric and Leigh Gibson. With Jerry Douglas producing, Darkest Hour is another outstanding album of original bluegrass built on the traditions and taken to another level. "What A Difference A Day Makes," "So Long, Mama," and "Dust" are key tracks.

3 Robbie Fulks- "Bluegrass Vacation" Featuring eleven original songs and a fine interpretation of "Nashville Blues," "Bluegrass Vacation" is an entirely satisfying and invigorating slice of contemporary Grassicana, as some call it. The album kicks-off with "One Glass Of Whiskey," another in the long line of colourful bluegrass drinking songs ("One glass of whiskey to ease my mind, and another one to take it too far away to find...")

4 Dale Ann Bradley- "Kentucky For Me" For her 14th album, Kentuckian Dale Ann Bradley — six-time International Bluegrass Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year — elects to pay musical tribute to her home state. With numerous collaborations with Kentucky friends as well as songs thematically tied to The Bluegrass State, "Kentucky For Me" succeeds in its mission. Bradley dueting with several different male voices on several tracks does initially surprise as one comes to the album to hear Bradley, but these arrangements are effectively presented within a high-quality, contemporary, bluegrass format.

5 Greg Blake- "People, Places, and Songs" The reigning IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year! I didn't think I would ever get to write that sentence about Greg Blake, but sometimes good things happen to great people. This is a positive album, one that focuses (for the most part) on the more pleasant and uplifting elements of life. No murders here, although there is death ("A Miner's Tale") and romantic challenge ("Not Far From Hope," "On Down the Road," and "The Other Side of the World.") But even those songs reveal the strength of human character, of hope and perseverance. The majority of these songs are fresh with three being co-writes with Blake.

6 Dan Tyminski "God Fearing Heathen" I was waiting for this one and was absolutely satisfied upon its arrival. Tyminski's voice is a wonder, and this set of songs just moves along. Great stuff. Hey, Brother, his song called "Ode to Jimmy" is a corker.

7 Special Consensus- "Great Blue North" One of our favorite bluegrass bands recording an album of songs from Canadian songwriters and musicians? Yes, please. Highlighted by the appearance of a trio of Jaybirds and a couple Romeros within the IBMA Award-winning "Alberta Bound" and the inclusion of Trisha Gagnon's "The Jaybird Song" with lead vocals from Greg Blake, this is a great album in a year of greatness. Blake has been a terrific addition to Greg Cahill's long-running bluegrass outfit. (By the way and don't fact check me please, with this 'Alberta' IBMA Award win, I believe the province now as more IBMA Awards than any other when Chris Jones' multiple awards and the Blueberry Music Festival's pair of honours are considered.)

8 Larry Sparks- "It's Just Me" Imagine, if you will:Larry Sparks stops in at your home one evening, and following a friendly chat over a cup of fresh coffee, he pulls out his aged flattop and starts playing songs. Dream no more, my bluegrass and Americana friends. Larry Sparks does just that—minus the coffee—on his latest, "It's Just Me." With select accompaniment from his son, bassist Larry D., the sure-voiced Sparks holds court here for just under a half-hour sharing songs, familiar and new.

9 High Fidelity- "Music In My Soul" High Fidelity is a premier bluegrass outfit, and this bluegrass gospel release presents their true selves excellently. Jeremy (guitar, banjo, vocals) and Corinna Stephens (fiddle, vocals) are terrific people, musicians, and singers, and their consistent lineup of Vickie Vaughn (bass, vocals), Daniel Amick (mandolin, vocals), and Stephenson (banjo, guitar, vocals) is entirely impressive. It is a joy-filled bluegrass gospel album.

10 Kathy Kallick Band- "The Lonesome Chronicles" As its title suggests, the latest from the venerable Kathy Kallick Band focuses on the 'lonesome' theme of bluegrass which, along with murder, moonshine, and Mama, forms the classic bluegrass quadrant. Now, being bluegrass, the tone, timbre, and tempo of the songs frequently betray the songs' true intent and theme, so one needs to attend to the lyrics to ensure one isn't grooving too hard with too much of a grin to a plum pitiful tale.

11 Jim Lauderdale & Po' Ramblin' Boys- "The Long and Lonesome Letting Go"

12 Starlett & Big John- "Living in the South"

13 The Kody Norris Show- "Rhinestone Revival"

14 Mighty Poplar- "Mighty Poplar" Nominated for a Bluegrass Grammy Award this year, this is an extremely well-executed bluegrass album.

15 Wolfpen Branch- "Long Hill to Climb" A bluegrass/old-time/jamband-ish outfit that I hadn't previously heard, but this Kentucky band hit me upside the head with strong playing, good vocals, and songs ("Don't Have A Clue", "Alone and Insincere") that have just enough self-deprecation to make them more appealing than most with others like "Burnin' the Midnight Oil" and "Long Hill to Climb" more traditionally structured. And in true bluegrass fashion, they disbanded within weeks of the album's release.

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