Here's a quick look at some fine bluegrass music, that super-twangy, amped-up mountain music that drives so many folks nuts. Bluegrass is a sleeker, faster version of Appalachian "old-timey" music (which in turn descends from Celtic and English folk music)... Bluegrass music's greatest pioneer was mandolin player Bill Monroe, who streamlined hillbilly stringband music back in the 1930s and '40s, giving it a bluesy melodic drive, and a hefty dose of instrumental showmanship. Monroe wasn't the style's only pioneer, but he was the guy that took credit for naming it "bluegrass," and the other greats of the bluegrass canon -- groups like Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Jim & Jesse and others, all admitted their debt to Monroe.
Anyway, this isn't meant to be a big, authoritative, scholarly overview of the style. Other folks have written more extensively and knowledgeably about bluegrass -- check my links sections at the bottom of these pages -- but I do like a lot of bluegrass, and hope to add to this section as time permits. Originally, I was going to have separate pages for classic bluegrass and the modern "newgrass" revival, but then I decided that was too complicated, and now I'm going to list them all together. (For some reason, though, I seem to have kept my old-timey pages separate... go figure!) In all likelihood I won't review a whole bunch of modern bluegrass fusion here -- I don't care for most of it -- but then again, you never know with a know-it-all like me...
This page covers the letter "A"
Tina Adair "Just You Wait And See" (Sugar Hill, 1997)
(Produced by Jerry Douglas)
A nice mix of solid picking and the mellow, romantic crossover material favored by fans of Alison Krauss, et al. The comparison is both inevitable, and warranted, as the teen age Adair is produced on her debut by Jerry Douglas, and backed up by slick newgrass "usual suspects" such as Douglas, Alan O'Bryant, Aubrey Haynie and Chris Thile... Yet despite the tilt towards the predictable, Adair has a certain flair and distinctive, charismatic aura to her. PLus, she chooses some interesting material... Sure, there's a limp version of Poco's '70s soft-rock oldie, "Crazy Love," but there's also a Sandy Denny cover (!) and a sizzler or two such as "My Time To Go," originally by Molly O'Day. Sometimes her vocals and the arrangements drag a bit, but overall, this is pretty good. Wonder whatever happened to this gal...!
Tom Adams "Right Hand Man" (Rounder, 1990)
A sprightly set of instrumental tunes, propelled (but not dominated) by banjoist Tom Adams, a plunker straight from the Scruggs school who at the time of this recording had most recently been helping anchor the Johnson Mountain Boys band. Here he plays with several fairly off-the-radar pickers, and the sound is quite nice and pleasantly engaging. One of those welcome all-instrumental albums that can hold your attention all the way through.
Tom Adams/Tony Furtado/Tony Trischka "Rounder Banjo Extravaganza - Live" (Rounder, 1992)
Tom Adams "Adams County Banjo" (Rounder, 2001)
Banjo plunker Tom Adams is a veteran player who's been in quite a few high-powered bluegrass bands, including gigs with Jimmy Martin, Rhonda Vincent and the Johnson Mountain Boys. Here, he kinda does for the banjo what Jerry Douglas did for the dobro on his classic Fluxology album, taking it through a variety of styles and tempos. As with many instrumental albums, I found my attention wandering while listening to this disc from end to end... But taken in small doses, or in a set with other musicians, it's pretty dazzling stuff.
Tom Adams & Michael Cleveland "Live At The Ragged Edge" (Rounder, 2004)
A lively, often dazzling set of mostly-instrumental duets by these two bluegrass virtuosi, zipping their way through around two dozen tunes, most of 'em played at a lightning pace on fiddle and banjo. The vocal material is nice, too -- in fact, an album highlight comes when Tom Adams flubs the lyrics on "Shady Grove," and improvises with the inspired line, "Blah, blah, blah..." Nice to sometimes see a few cracks in the super-musicianship of the bluegrass upper crust. And a good sense of humor!
Eddie Adcock & Don Reno "Sensational Twin Banjos" (Rebel, 1992)
Eddie Adcock "Renaissance Man" (Pinecastle, 1996)
Veteran picker and plunker Eddie Adcock, who made his mark in Mac Wiseman and Bill Monroe's bands, and later in the Country Gentlemen, showcases his multi-instrumentalist agility in this brisk disc, which features him playing banjo, mandolin and guitar, often on the same track. Although many tracks lack the fluidity of his best work, he's still a pretty dazzling player, and can pull out some riffs that'll really sneak up and surprise you. Ricky Skaggs, Jim & Jesse, Alan O'Bryant, Buck White and Mac Wiseman all turn up for guest appearances.
Eddie & Martha Adcock "TwoGrass" (Pinecastle, 2003)
A low-key set, with kind of a loose, folk-oriented vocal bent. Some nice picking, but the emphasis is more on the vocals, including a couple of nice gospel numbers, with harmonies by this husband-wife duo.
Darrell Adkins "Standing On A Bridge" (Old Homestead, 1990) (LP)
Paul Adkins & The Borderline Band "Old Rusty Gate" (Rebel, 1996)
Soft, sometimes gooey, progressive tradgrass, with velvety vocals and demure, stately picking. Nice harmonies on the gospel material, and a few interesting covers tunes plucked from the country catalog, including covers of Merle Haggard's "My Favorite Memory" and Buck Owens' "Street Of Bakersfield." Might be too far afield for the grumpier truegrass purists, but it's pretty sweet overall. Nice!
Red Allen & Frank Wakefield "The Kitchen Tapes" (Acoustic Disc, 1994)
Red Allen "Keep On Going: The Rebel & Melodeon Recordings" (Rebel, 2004)
Magnificently pure, old-fashioned high-lonesome truegrass, reissuing material from several early albums and singles from 1963-65, when singer-guitarist Harley "Red" Allen was really on fire. He'd made a name for himself in the 'Fifties, working in a trio with the Osborne Brothers, though from '58 on, Allen led his own band, keeping afloat and keepin' it real during some of country music's roughest times. The lineup on these tracks changed frequently, but with sidemen like Frank Wakefield, Bill Emerson and Scotty Stoneman pitching in, along with the Yates Brothers, Bill and Wayne, filling out the vocal harmonies, Allen & The Kentuckians were a force to be reckoned with. This stuff's about as good as it gets, and puts most of Allen's early '60s contemporaries to shame. It's really, really good, really, really rootsy, true bluegrass... highly recommended!
Red Allen "Lonesome And Blue: The Complete County Recordings" (Rebel, 2004)
This disc reissues two classic mid-'60s albums, Bluegrass Country, from 1965, and 1966's Red Allen & The Kentuckians, which were among the first records issued on the fledgling County label. Bluegrass fans will note these records for their historical significance -- fiddler Richard Greene makes his debut on the first album (soon to move on to Bill Monroe's band, and later newgrass reknown), while mandolin king David Grisman, still testing his wings, was signed on to work his magic on the second. Neither, naturally, were as accomplished as they would later become, but they were still pretty good. While not as electrifying as other Allen albums, this is still pretty nice stuff, well worth checking out, and certainly a major milestone for those tracking the growth of the bluegrass revival.
Red Allen "The Folkways Years: 1964 -1983" (Smithsonian Folkways, 2001)
Another stunning set of "high lonesome" recordings from one of Bill Monroe's greatest folk revival disciples. The soft-pedaled vocals are sublime, the picking is flawless, and the material is classic. A wonderful retrospective, with not a single wasted moment. Highly recommended!
Red Allen & The Osborne Brothers "1957-1958" (Collector's Classics) (LP)
Red Allen & Frank Wakefield "...And The Kentuckians" (Folkways, 1964)
Red Allen "Tradition" (Folkways, 1983)
Allerton & Alton "Black, White And Bluegrass" (Bear Family, 2010)
The folks at Bear Family score another coup with this archival set of bluegrass radio shows featuring the New England duo of Al Hawkes and Alton Meyers, who performed together in Maine as The Cumberland Ridge Runners. They were a solid regional bluegrass act, with plenty of lively picking and a good traditional repertoire... What was unique about them was that the duo was interracial: Hawkes was a white farmer's kid from Maine, and Meyers came from a railroading family, but they shared a love of old-time stringband music and hit a nice groove together. In the late 1940s and early '50s, they sang together on radio station WLAM, and built up a pretty solid following (although there were some rough spots along the way, with segregated clubs and the like... ) After the Korean War, which ended their partnership, Hawkes went on to start an independent record label and released singles by regional stars such as Dick Curless, Don Stover, Hal Lone Pine and Betty Cody, and their son, guitarist Lenny Breau. The airshots on this album show a strong, vibrant truegrass act, maybe not wildly different or better than the hundreds of other bands around at the time, but rock solid and totally entertaining. And what a nice glimpse of art transcending politics and prejudice, 'way back in goodle days. Check it out!
Allison's Sacred Harp Singers "Heaven's My Home: 1927-1928" (County, 2004)
A fascinating collection of extraordinarily rare old 78s made at the dawn of the country music industry. The religious tradition that the Allison's Singers were from is pretty far afield from the readily commercialized scene that other rural artists pursued, but as with many shape-note performers, the rawness and emotional immediacy of their work is quite striking. It's also such a distinctive sound! This is an American-born musical tradition that is truly like no other, and the County label has done a commendable job rescuing these old discs from the brink of obscurity. This stuff isn't for everyone, but folks who do like it will be thrilled to hear these songs. (Also check out my Country Gospel section)
The All-Night Gang "Bluegrass From Nashville" (Rebel, 1992)
A funky all-star session featuring (among others) Butch Baldassari, Mike Bub, Stuart Duncan, Terry Eldredge, David Grier, and Roland White...
Scott Anderson "Rivers" (Mato Music, 2001)
Sleek, sweet progressive bluegrass, built around a soft-edged banjo, and warm, sympathetic accompaniment; probably too saccharine for most fans of rough'n'ready truegrass, but it has some nice moments, and might appeal to folks who like the Alison Krauss approach. About evenly split between instrumentals and vocal numbers.
Darol Anger "Fiddlistics" (Kaleidoscope, 1981) (LP)
Darol Anger & Barbara Higbie "Tideline" (Windham Hill, 1982)
Darol Anger/Barbara Higbie Quartet "Live At Montreux '84" (Windham Hill, 1984)
Darol Anger "Chiaroscuro" (1985)
Darol Anger & Mike Marshall "The Duo" (Rounder, 1988)
Darol Anger/Various Artists "Jazz Violin Celebration" (Kaleidoscope, 1985) (LP)
Darol Anger & Mike Marshall "Jam" (Compass, 1999)
Darol Anger "Diary Of A Fiddler" (Compass, 1999)
One of the key members of the Grisman-inspired spacegrass scene weighs in with a flashy set of high-power fiddle instrumentals, moving from Irish reels and bluegrass sizzlers to jazzy space-outs, cajun tunes, and playful covers of old Beatles and Hendrix hits. Each tune has a different cast of characters, with master fiddlers such as Martin Hayes, Natalie McMaster, Bruce Molsky, Richard Greene and others pitching in on various tracks. A little show-offy, but also pretty soulful, and pleasantly low-tech.
Darol Anger & Mike Marshall "Brand New Can" (Compass, 2000)
Darol Anger & Mike Marshall "The Duo Live: At Home And On The Range" (Compass, 2002)
Darol Anger & The American Fiddle Ensemble "Republic Of Strings" (Compass, 2004)
Scott Nygaard anchors the album on guitar, while Anger flits about on the violin and mandolin, joined by Brittany Haas on violin, and the dual cellos of Rushad Eggleston and Natalie Haas. Laurie Lewis contributes vocals on a florid cover of Joni Mitchell's "Help Me"; Sara Watkins (of Nickle Creek fame) does the same for a version of the Stevie Wonder oldie, "Higher Ground," which may be the album's highlight (and which you're sure to hear on various NPR-affiliated folk shows in the months to come...) This is pretty sugary, but flows along nicely and draws on a wide range of sources, gathering songs from Brazil, Finland, Ireland, the Middle East and all strata of American pop culture. Newgrass/new acoustic fans will be pleased, though it may be a mite mellow for the rest of us.
Darol Anger "Heritage" (Six Degrees, 2005)
Darol Anger & Republic Of Strings "Generation Nation" (Compass, 2006)
Darol Anger & Mike Marshall "Woodshop" (Adventure Music, 2007)
Sprightly "newgrass" instrumentals in the classic mode, these collaborations between violinist Darol Anger and mando/multi-instrumentalist Mike Marshall cap a decades-long partnership, and show the fluidity and playfulness of their shared musical strengths. The tunes bear the emblematic mix of bluegrass, classical and jazz elements that the style is based on... The album kicks off with "Peter Pan," which gave me the willies because its the theme song to a local public radio talkshow that I hear all the time (Mike Marshall wrote it... who knew??) Another highlight is the craftily named "Who Had Whom," which is a sideways quote of the Beatles' "Michelle..." All in all, a pretty solid album by these two old pros -- focussed and not too goopy, a treat for fans while accessible to Americana and jazz buffs alike.
Mike Marshall, Darol Anger & Vasen "Mike Marshall & Darol Anger With Vasen" (Adventure Music, 2007)
Two newgrass elders, violinist Darol Anger and mando/multi-instrumentalist Mike Marshall, tune in and turn on with the group Vasen, one of the most dynamic bands in the modern Swedish acoustic music scene. Various 'grassers have flirted with Celtic and other European forms, so Anger and Marshall already have an affinity for the style... The debt apparently runs both ways, as the Vasen trio leaps in full throttle along with the Northern California superpickers... It's a very energetic, hurly-burly set, dominated by note-heavy improvisational flights. The repertoire is split pretty evenly between originals and traditional material brought to the table by Marshall, and originals and traditional material from Vasen's guitarist, Roger Tallroth, and violinist Mikael Marin. Acoustic music fans who like their improvs fast and furious will get a kick out of this one, and folks who are new to the Swedish sound will probably be inspired to check out other, older Vasen albums as well.
Darol Anger & Philip Aaberg "Cross Time" (Sweetgrass, 2008)
Any Old Time String Band (Bay/Arhoolie, 1978, 1980)
This San Francisco Bay Area ensemble was one of the most charming -- and accomplished -- of the late -'70s string band revivalists. The 1996 CD reissue combines two LPs originally released in 1978 and 1980, and features their lovely version of the melodic oldie, "C-U-B-A," originally a hit for Billy Murray in 1920. The lineup changed between albums, but Kate Brislin and Sue Draheim were core members of the band, along with Genny Haley on guitar... and their sense of "old-time" music, including old-time jazz and Tin Pan Alley material, was right on the button. Very sweet and highly recommended.
Any Old Time "Ladies' Choice" (Bay Records, 1983) (LP)
Arkansas Sheiks "Whiskey Before Breakfast" (Bay Records, 1975) (LP)
An early SF Bay Area "all-star" band, with folks such as Jody Stecher, Kate Brislin, Laurie Lewis and Tony Marcus, trotting through a widely diverse repertoire of "American and English" tunes... Stylistically this ranges from straight bluegrass to western swing-tinged jazz and old-timey numbers, as well as a few vocal numbers reminiscent of England's Watersons... There are plenty of rough edges here, but it's a nice glimpse at this style of folk revivalism made at a time when stylistic differences weren't so clearly cut, and bands were in it strictly for fun, and didn't feel the pressure to specialize in order to get an audience.
The Armstrong Twins "Mandolin Boogie" (Arhoolie, 1979/2004)
Killer-diller hillbilly music from the late 1940s, with Arkansas natives Floyd and Lloyd Armstrong taking the stripped-down bluegrass/old-timey sound of "brother duets" like the Blue Sky Boys and pushing it into an aggressive, driving style that prefigures the rockabilly sound of the next decade. The Armstrong Twins distinguished themselves from many of their hillbilly boogie contemporaries in several ways: first off, they were in the vanguard, a lot of the country boogie material dates from the early '50s, and their 1948-49 recordings predate the main deluge. Then there's their choice of instruments: led by an acoustic mandolin, rather than the classic honkytonk fiddle-and-steel sound that most hillbilly boogie artists built off of... Finally, there's the fact that they quite simply rocked! A lot of hillbilly boogie was kind of awkward and gangly, whereas the Armstrongs sounded perfectly at ease, rollicking and having lots of fun. It's an infectious sound: their mile-wide smiles are audible across the decades, and the picking is also top-notch. This CD reissue also includes several tracks recorded during a 1979 reunion session -- their voices don't have the same spark and fire as when they were young, but the music is played with great authority and compare quite favorably with similar stuff done by the Blue Sky Boys during their '60s and '70s sessions. Good stuff... a keeper, for sure!!
Jimmy Arnold "Southern Soul" (Rebel, 1983)
Jimmy Arnold "Ridin' With Ol' Mosby" (Rebel, 2006)
A fine retrospective of bluegrass songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jimmy Arnold, a banjo-pickin' prodigy who sailed through several bands in the 1970s and later refashioned himself as sort of a truegrass auteur. This is a tasty selection drawn from three solo albums recorded for the Rebel label, including several songs from his highly-regarded 1983 album, Southern Soul, and a handful of lively, previously unreleased tracks that will turn a few ears. As detailed in the liner notes, Arnold lived a wild life and died young, but his restless energy and creative impulses come through loud and clear in all of these recordings. Although some may have faulted him for lacking polish in his technique, there's something refreshing about the ragged edges and tiny gaps in his playing -- instead of sounding like just another too-smooth, perfect picker, he sounds like an artist with a dynamic personal style, playing live and in the moment, with an unfettered enthusiasm that recalls some of the idiosyncratic old-timey recordings of the 1920s and '30s. It also doesn't hurt that he has some of the finest pickers of the time backing him up -- Mike Auldridge, Mark Newton and Cliff Waldron, in particular. All in all, this is a pretty nice record. Guess I'm going to have to track down a copy of Southern Soul as well!
Clarence "Tom" Ashley "Greenback Dollar" (Rebel/County, 2001)
A top-notch set of blues-tinged early country music from this North Carolina guitarist. Many of these songs are now folk scene standards, including the title track, which was one of the pivotal early hits for the late-'50s folkie revival, when recorded by the Kingston Trio. In these original versions, Ashley's Depression-era recordings strike the perfect balance between the grimly morbid sensibilities of the old-time mountain music and the buoyancy of the emerging commercial country scene. He has an edge, yet avoids the psychotic intensity of Dock Boggs, who could also be considered a precursor to rock-style music. This is a great set, full of lively, good-humored performances and plenty of great tunes. Highly recommended!
Clarence "Tom" Ashley & Doc Watson "The Original Folkways Recordings, 1960-1962" (Smithsonian-Folkways, 1994)
Clarence "Tom" Ashley & Tex Isley "...Play And Sing American Folk Music" (Smithsonian-Folkways, 1994)
Mike Auldridge "Dobro" (Takoma, 1972)
Mike Auldridge "Bluegrass And Blues" (Takoma, 1974)
Recorded in 1972, just as the acoustic music revival was really beginning to emerge from under the shadow of hippie-era rock scene, Mike Auldridge's groundbreaking Dobro album helped set the tone for the genre-bending musical explorations of the newgrass and spacegrass scenes that would follow. Many of the tunes were straightforward pick-athons, featuring able assistance by folks such as David Bromberg, Doyle Lawson and Auldridge's pals from the Seldom Scene. The album was a celebration of pure musicianship, a sort of insiders-club party, saying, "hey! look what we can do now!" The album also helped bring the so-called resophonic guitar, or dobro, into the bluegrass mainstream, opening the door for whippersnappers such as Jerry Douglas to explore the sound even further. Auldridge's playing is smooth and serene, a pleasure in and of itself; his choice of material and the sympathetic accompaniment are just icing on the cake. This new CD reissue pairs the original album up with its likeminded follow-up, Bluegrass And Blues, which is also quite lovely, but shows early hints of the formulae that would creep into the new acoustic scene, such as covers of pop tunes and jazz standards -- tricks that seem commonplace now, but were radically new back then. All in all, a sweet collection of tunes, quite pleasant to listen to.
Mike Auldridge "Mike Auldridge" (Flying Fish, 1976)
Auldridge's sleek follow-up album was equally satisfying, opening with a snappy resophonic dazzler, "Southern Rain," and working through various styles, ranging from bluesy Tin Pan Alley-ish instrumentals to lighthearted covers of pop tunes like "Last Train To Clarksville" and "California Dreaming." OK, I know what you're thinking with those last two, but this is sincerely an engaging and quite pleasant set of sweet super-picking and creative countrifying... Folks who can actually understand what Auldridge is doing technically will stand in awe of his abilities.
Mike Auldridge "...And Old Dog" (Flying Fish, 1978)
Mike Auldridge & Jeff Newman "Slidin' Smoke" (Flying Fish, 1978)
Sweet dobro from Mike Auldridge, intertwined with Jeff Newman's silky pedal steel... Nice combination! Auldridge gets to explore his country side, and even sing on a few tunes... Fans of acoustic instrumental music -- and pedal steel records -- will want to check this one out. Fiddler Johnny Gimble also sits in on a few tunes. Nice stuff.
Mike Auldridge "Eight String Swing" (Sugar Hill, 1988)
Mike Auldridge "Treasures Untold" (Sugar Hill, 1989)
Mike Auldridge, Lou Reid & Michael Coleman "High Time" (Sugar Hill, 1990)
Auldridge/Bennett/Gaudreau "This Old Town" (Rebel, 1999)
These three old-timers -- Seldom Scene's Mike Auldridge, Richard Bennett of the New South, and mandolin whiz Jimmy Gaudreau of Country Gentlemen fame -- obviously have a strong intuitive compatiblility and work well together. This album's a little on the softer, folkier side, with a tendency towards heartsongs and progressive bluegrass "story songs," with more than just a whiff of Gordon Lightfoot in the air. Some of the vocals are quite nice while others are a bit thick, lyrically; Gaudreau's Vietnam vet memoir, "Two Hearts," is a bit eaden, despite the best intentions. They also drift into a few Grisman-y instrumentals, which highlight the high-class picking that threads thoughout the album. Sweet stuff.
Mike Auldridge/Bob Brozman/David Grisman "Tone Poems III" (Acoustic Disc, 2000)
Three legendary pickers get together to exult in and show off their fabulous collections of vintage "resophonic" and slide guitars, mandolins and banjos. The pictures in the accompanying booklet -- with dozens of gorgeous Jazz Era, art deco instruments -- are enough to make one's jaw drop, but the music on the CD is pretty swell, too. In turns Fahey-esque, bluesy, dreamy, standards-oriented, neo-Hawaiian and somewhat plunky, this album is clearly the work of master musicians happily at play. It's also a really nice record to just chill out and relax to. Very nice.
Auldridge/Bennett/Gaudreau "Blue Lonesome Wind" (Rebel, 2001)
A nice follow-up to their first Rebel set. The opening tunes sound a bit brisk, but soulfullness creeps in on "My Aching Heart," and once again, the picking is quite impressive. Includes heartsongs, flowery ballads and poppish instrumentals, at times a bit muzak-y and overly sophisticated for me, especially on songs such as "City Of Lost Souls," which is kinda high-concept and prettified by a few too many key changes. Still, nice stuff when they hit the mark: fans of Tony Rice's vocal work should enjoy this disc.
Mike Auldridge & The Good Deale Bluegrass Band "Another Great Deale" (Flounder, 2003)
Mike Auldridge/Jim Heffernan/Hal Rugg "Resocasters"
Jeff Autry "Foothills" (Pinecastle, 1999)
Evenly split between breakdowns and Grisman-y instrumentals, and jazzy stringband heartsongs, including a zippy version of the big band standards like "Avalon" and "Over The Rainbow." But even with the jazz-standards inclinations, this is a pretty straightforward, true-grassy album. Nice, sweet stuff, with some swell guitar picking... recommended!
Bluegrass Albums - Letter "B"
Hick Music Index