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The 2024 Bluegrass Grammy Will Go To...

Donald Teplyske  |  December 16, 2023

by Donald Teplyske

Annually the bluegrass community joins together to celebrate the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, industry recognition of the best the music offers. The Grammy Awards also has a bluegrass category, but this recognition doesn't appear to receive as much attention as the IBMA Awards. Perhaps this is because it is 'outside' our rather tight industry. It does have the potential to be 'bigger news,' but seldom garners much attention past the 'day of' announcement. Like all things Bluegrass, few headlines are garnered.

Ask yourself, Who won last year's Bluegrass Grammy? The year before? That said, the last few years I have been quite satisfied with the recipients. (For the record, Molly Tuttle, Béla Fleck, Billy Strings, Michael Cleveland, and The Travelin' McCourys won the last few years, and all were worthy of the notice.)

When the Bluegrass Grammy noms came out in November, not much attention of the announcement was observed, and none since. I thought I would take a few moments and offer my perspective on the six nominated albums. They are:

"Radio John: Songs of John Hartford" – Sam Bush

"Lovin' Of The Game" – Michael Cleveland

"Mighty Poplar" – Mighty Poplar

"Bluegrass" – Willie Nelson

"Me/And/Dad" – Billy Strings

"City Of Gold" – Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway

I feel two of the albums are not worthy of nomination, but am not surprised the Sam Bush and Willie Nelson albums are on the list. Neither album is particularly 'bluegrass' in execution. Yes, bluegrass players are involved on the Nelson album and Bush multi-tracks all the instruments on 90% of his album, but the overall recordings are not terribly impressive.

"Radio John: Songs of John Hartford," in my opinion, doesn't sufficiently highlight Hartford's contributions to roots music. The title cut is very good—co-written with the brilliant John Pennell—and was the reason I purchased the download. The bulk of the album is only okay, a bit sterile even—definitely not what I was expecting from Sam Bush. His voice, in places, isn't strong enough to carry these songs, and it was only after living with the album that I learned he played everything on the songs (excepting "Radio John.")

Maybe that is part of the reason the album doesn't sound lively—it lacks musician interaction, what used to be a staple of bluegrass. The song selection is unimpressive, in my opinion, and skips over several Hartford 'must-haves.' I realize that Bush stated (words to the effect) he wanted to examine less 'mainstream' material, but I believe that was a mistake. Still, that title cut is great, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that I'm in the minority about the rest.

The greatest problem I have with the Willie Nelson "Bluegrass" album is that is sucks oxygen away from more deserving projects produced within the bluegrass genre; it went to #1 on the Billboard Bluegrass chart.

There is no true drive to be found within the instrumentation, no verve in Nelson's vocals, no playfulness or texture within the music or vocal harmonies. Little that distinguishes bluegrass from mainstream country music is present. Outside the lead track "No Love Around" and "Bloody Mary Morning," the songs don't even necessarily reflect the topics and attitudes of the bluegrass canon. "Bluegrass" is a carefully constructed but quickly fading watercolor rendered utilizing a paint-by-numbers palette that is simply a rather trite set of acoustic re-recordings of Willie Nelson songs. Seldom does Nelson adjust to the energy the instrumentation occasionally hints toward, slow-rolling his way through. It is an acoustic country album with a bit of bluegrass flavoring.

Of the four remaining nominees, I would be satisfied with any of them receiving the award.

I believe the strongest 'sounding' album is Billy Strings and Terry Barber's "Me/And/Dad." More than a flashy guitar player, Strings has bridged the traditional bluegrass community to broader audiences playing increasingly large stadium shows. Selecting childhood songs that Strings felt were most significant, and recorded over five days with four-fifths of the classic Del McCoury Band—Ron (mandolin) and Rob (banjo) McCoury, Jason Carter (fiddle), and Mike Bub (bass)—along with Michael Cleveland (fiddle) and Jerry Douglas (resonator)—this is not necessarily the album we were expecting from Billy Strings at this point in his trajectory. It is a most welcome continuation of his journey.

The palpable familiarity between Barber (guitar) and Strings (guitar and banjo) breathes vitality to these very familiar songs. What is plain beyond that captured on tape is the affirmative impact Barber has had on Strings, instilling a deep appreciation for these elemental, unadorned sounds. High-energy, up-tempo songs like "Deeper in the Well" (featuring amazing fiddle touches from Michael Cleveland), "Way Downtown," and "Stone Walls and Steel Bars" provide balance from the maudlin songs favored by the duo. Knowing a little about their relationship, songs like "Wandering Boy," "Little Blossom," and even the instrumentals "Frosty Morn" and "Peartree" hit a little harder than they might when performed by others.

Equally compelling but quite different in approach is Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway's "City of Gold." Arguably the most interesting and versatile bluegrass band working the circuit, and co-produced by Tuttle and Jerry Douglas, this album is the second to feature members of Golden Highway, Tuttle's touring group; unlike the preceding Grammy Award-winning "Crooked Tree," "City of Gold" is truly a band album with limited guest appearances. By featuring the musicians experienced during her live performances, this wide-ranging but entirely cohesive and spectacular recording is certain to impress a growing fanbase.

Rich in story, this is a true modern bluegrass recording. As the two-time and reigning International Bluegrass Music Association Female Vocalist of the Year as well as two-time Guitar Player of the Year, Tuttle is well-positioned to lead this incredible band. "City of Gold" takes listeners not only on a musical journey, but geographical, environmental, and emotional ones as well.

With all songs co-written by Tuttle and Ketch Secor (Old Crow Medicine Show) it features songs catchy and expansive ("El Dorado") trippy ("Where Did All The Wild Things Go?"), telling ("Yosemite,") and swinging ("San Joaquin.")

Palatable bluegrass drive is sadly missing on many contemporary recordings, but such is not the case here. Shelby Means' bass propels Golden Highway across "El Dorado," with Kyle Tuttle's banjo prominent. A bluegrass band requires a tasteful and powerful fiddler, and Bronwyn Keith-Hynes (twice IBMA's Fiddle Player of the Year) is among the finest working. Golden Highway's vocal harmonies are creative and spot-on.

I mistakenly believed Michael Cleveland's "Lovin' Of the Game" came out in late 2022 and missed it when I was considering my 2023 favorites. It is a good record, but nothing distinguishes it from the many other great bluegrass albums recorded of late, most of which didn't get nominated for the Grammy. Cleveland is one of the best in the business, always giving songs the perfect fiddle flair. Several guests appear on "Lovin' Of The Fame," including Billy Strings, Charlie Starr, and The Travelin' McCourys, but too many of the songs are 'here and gone': you're hard pressed to recall them once played.

Of these six albums, the one I have listened to least is Mighty Poplar's debut. Not a reflection of merit, but reality; it only came to me in the last month. Like the majority of the albums featured here, there is lots of great picking and solid singing on this album. A collection of 'sidemen' featuring members of The Punch Brothers, Watchhouse, Leftover Salmon, and Billy Strings' band, there is no shortage of talent within Mighty Poplar. Make no mistake, Mighty Poplar is a bluegrass band with Noah Pikelny, Chris Eldridge, and the other members possessing deep pedigrees.

The songs they have chosen to record are mostly familiar, but the lead vocals are a bit challenging in places. Still, a quality album that allows these masters (Andrew Marlin, Greg Garrison, and Alex Hargreaves, too) to stretch themselves by going back to the basics of the tradition.

Who do I think will win? I'm afraid Willie Nelson will because some voters will believe the (limited) associated publicity will be good for the industry. I certainly hope those voting will do so with their ears and pick one of the other albums. I suspect Sam Bush has a great chance to win—everyone loves Sam Bush, as they should.

For me, the 'best' album out of the other four is either Molly Tuttle's or Billy Strings's, depending on my mood, but I am going to with Mighty Poplar to win: I think there will be more voters impressed by this album than the others.

So, my heart and gut says "City of Gold" or "Me/And/Dad", but my pragmatic brain goes with either Sam Bush or Mighty Poplar. If Willie Nelson receives the Bluegrass Grammy, I will be disappointed because it isn't that good and it will further detract from deserving artists. If Michael Cleveland wins again, I will be pleased for him.

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