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Best Compact Discs of the Year

David Royko's (mainly) Bluegrass/Newgrass picks for the

Chicago Tribune, 1993 - 2008

From 1993 through 2008, I contributed a year-end Best CDs piece to the Chicago Tribune, for which my main "beat" was Bluegrass & Newgrass music. Four of those years were simply lists of five or ten CDs without comments (1995-1998). Otherwise, I got to write a few words about each selection (1993-1994, 1999-2008).

Preceding the individual yearly stories below, I have provided an alphabetical listing of all my choices (138 total) for those 16 years. The year the disc was picked is in brackets.

I have also contributed to the Village Voice Pazz and Jop poll and the Nashville Scene Best of the Year poll. Click hither to go yonder.

Allen, Red: Keep On Going—The Rebel & Melodeon Recordings (Rebel) [2004]

Allen, Red: Lonesome And Blue—The Complete County Recordings (Rebel) [2004]

Anger, Darol/Mike Marshall Band: Jam (Compass) [1999]

Arnold, Jimmy: Riding With Ol' Mosby (Rebel) [2006]

Arnold, Malcom: English, Irish, Scottish, And Cornish Dances: London Philharmonic/Arnold (Lyrita) [2007]

Bad Livers: Industry & Thrift (Sugar Hill) [1998]

Baker, Baker: Master Fiddler (County) [1993]

Baldassari, Butch: New Classics for Bluegrass Mandolin (Sound Art) [1998]

Battles: Mirrored (Warp) [2007]

Big Country Bluegrass: The Real Deal (Hay Holler) [2002]

Biscuit Burners: Fiery Mountain Music (indidog) [2004]

Black, Bob: Banjoy (Green Valley) [2000]

Bluegrass Etc.: Bluegrass Etc. (Sierra) [1995]

Bluegrass Etc.: Home Is Where the Heart Is (Tricopolis) [1999]

Bradley, Dale Ann: Catch Tomorrow (Compass) [2006]

Bradley, Dale Ann: Cumberland River Dreams (Doobie Shea) [2001]

Breakaway: Watershed (Signature Sound) [1997]

Brown, Alison: Fair Weather (Compass) [2000]

Bush, Sam & David Grisman: Hold On We're Strummin' (Acoustic Disc) [2003]

Bush, Sam: Glamour and Grits (Sugar Hill) [1996]

Bush, Sam: Howlin' at the Moon (Sugar Hill) [1998]

Bush, Sam: Laps in Seven (Sugar Hill) [2006]

Carter, Jason: On The Move (Rounder) [1997]

Chiavola, Kathy: From Where I Stand (My Label) [2002]

Chiavola, Kathy: The Harvest (My Label) [1996]

Cleveland, Michael: Let 'er Go, Boys! (Rounder) [2006]

Collins, Andrew & Marc Roy: Likewise (sytesounds) [2004]

Compton, Mike & David Long: Stomp (Acoustic Disc) [2006]

Connell, Dudley & Don Rigsby: Meet Me By the Moonlight (Sugar Hill) [1999]

Corbett, Chrisman and Tice (Patuxent) [2008]

Corea, Chick & Bela Fleck: The Enchantment (Concord) [2007]

Crooked Jades: Unfortunate Rake (Copper Creek) [2002]

Demolition String Band: Where the Wild, Wild Flowers Grow-The Songs of Ola Belle Reed (OkraTone) [2004]

Evans, Bill: Bill Evans Plays Banjo (Native and Fine) [2001]

Evans, Gerald & Joe Mullins: Just A Five-String And A Fiddle (Rebel) [1995]

Feldmann, Peter: Grey Cat on the Tennessee Farm—Songs of Uncle Dave Macon (Hen Cackle Records) [2005]

Fleck, Bela & the Flecktones: Jingle All The Way (Rounder) [2008]

Fleck, Bela and Tony Trischka: Solo Banjo Works (Rounder) [1993]

Fleck, Bela: Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Volume 2: The Bluegrass Sessions (Warner) [1999]

Front Range: One Beautiful Day (Sugar Hill) [1995]

Gil, Cartas & Tuey: The Lonely Hippo ( [2006]

Greene, Buddy: Rufus (Rufus Music) [2002]

Greene's Grass Is Greener, Richard: Wolves A' Howlin' (Rebel) [1996]

Grisman, David: Dawg Duos (Acoustic Disc) [1999]

Hartford, Jamie: Part of Your History—The Songs of John Hartford (New Sheriff) [2005]

Hasegawa, Hikaru: Show By Banjo (Rolling Hills) [1993]

Haynie, Aubrey: A Man Must Carry On (Sugar Hill) [2000]

Haynie, Aubrey: Doin' My Time (Sugar Hill) [1997]

Hicks, Bobby: Texas Crapshooter (County) [1994]

Huber, Steve: Pullin' Time (Strictly Country) [1995]

Ickes, Rob: Slide City (Rounder) [1999]

Jim & Jesse: The Old Dominion Masters (Pinecastle, 4 CDs) [1999]

Johnson, Mark/Emory Lester: Acoustic Campaign (Bangtown) [2002]

Kentucky Colonels: Appalachian Swing! (Rounder) [1993]

Krauss, Alison & Union Station: Live (Rounder) [2002]

Krauss, Alison & Union Station: Lonely Runs Both Ways (Rounder) [2004]

Kukuruza: Crossing Borders (Sugar Hill) [1993]

Leadbetter, Phil: Philibuster (Mid-Knight) [1997]

Leftwich, Andy: Ride (Skaggs Family) [2003]

Legere, Ray & Roger Williams: River of No Return (Strictly Country) [1996]

Lonesome River Band: Window of Time (Doobie Shea) [2002]

Lynch, Claire: Friends For A Lifetime (Brentwood) [1993]

MacKenzie, Kate: Let Them Talk (Red House) [1994]

Marley's Ghost: How Can I Keep From Singing (Sage Arts) [1993]

Marshall, Mike & Chris Thile: Into the Cauldron (Sugar Hill) [2003]

McCoury Band, Del: Del and the Boys (Ceili) [2001]

McCoury Band, Del: It's Just the Night (McCoury Music) [2003]

McCoury Band, Del: The Cold Hard Facts (Rounder) [1996]

McCoury Band, Del: The Company We Keep (McCoury Music/Sugar Hill) [2005]

McReynolds, Jesse & Charles Whitstein: A Tribute to Brother Duets (Pinecastle) [2005]

Miyazaki, Katsuyuki: Mandoscape (Red Clay) [2003]

Monroe Brothers: What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul? (Rounder) [2000]

Monroe, Bill and Doc Watson: Live Duet Recordings 1963-1980 (Smithsonian/Folkways) [1993]

Monroe, Bill: Bill Monroe And His Bluegrass Boys, Live Recordings 1956-1969 (Smithsonian/Folkways) [1993]

Monroe, Bill: My Last Days On Earth (4 CD boxed set; Bear Family) [2007]

Monroe, Bill: The Music Of Bill Monroe from 1936 to 1994 (MCA) [1994]

Muleskinner: Live: Original Television Soundtrack (Sierra) [1993]

Nashville Bluegrass Band: Twenty Year Blues (Sugar Hill) [2004]

New Coon Creek Girls: The L & N Don't Stop Here Anymore (Pinecastle) [1994]

New Grass Revival: Best Of New Grass Revival (Liberty) [1994]

New Grass Revival: Grass Roots: The Best of New Grass Revival (Capitol, 2 discs) [2005]

Nickel Creek: This Side (Sugar Hill) [2002]

Northern Lights: Living In The City (Red House) [1996]

O’Connor, Mark: Heroes (Warner Brothers) [1993]

O’Connor, Mark: Thirty Year Retrospective (OMAC) [2003]

Parton, Dolly: The Grass Is Blue (Sugar Hill/Blue Eye) [1999]

Pikelny, Noam: In the Maze (Compass) [2004]

Psychograss: Now Hear This (Adventure Music America) [2005]

Punch Brothers: Punch (Nonesuch) [2008]

Raines, Missy: My Place in the Sun (MR) [1998]

Reno Brothers: Acoustic Celebration (Webco) [1994]

Roberts, Danny: Mandolin Orchard (Butler Music Group) [2004]

Rowan, Peter: Bluegrass Boy (Sugar Hill) [1996]

Sawtelle, Charles: Music from Rancho deVille (Acoustic Disc) [2001]

Schatz, Mark: Brand New Old Tyme Way (Rounder) [1995]

Seckler, Curly: Bluegrass Don't You Know (Copper Creek) [2006]

Shiflett, Karl & Big Country Show: Worries on My Mind (Rebel) [2003]

Sizemore, Herschel: My Style (Hay Holler) [2000]

Skaggs, Ricky & Kentucky Thunder: Brand New Strings (Skaggs Family) [2004]

Smith Band, Kenny & Amanda: Always Never Enough (Rebel) [2005]

Sparrow Quartet: Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet (Nettwerk) [2008]

Spears, Ron: My Time Has Come (Copper Creek) [1999]

Special Consensus: 25th Anniversary (Pinecastle) [2000]

Special Consensus: Route 10 (Pinecastle) [2002]

Special Consensus: Strong Enough to Bend (Pinecastle) [1996]

Stanley and Friends, Ralph: Clinch Mountain Sweethearts (Rebel) [2001]

Stanley, Ralph: Old-Time Pickin'--A Clawhammer Banjo Collection (Rebel) [2008]

Statman, Andy: Andy's Ramble (Rounder) [1994]

Statman, Andy: East Flatbush Blues (Shefa) [2006]

Statman, Andy: Flatbush Waltz (Rounder Archive) [2005]

Teagrass: Moravian Love Songs (G-Music) [1999]

Team Flathead: The Huber Banjo Sessions (Huber) [2003]

The New Tradition: Old Time Gospel Jamboree (Brentwood) [1994]

Thile, Chris: How To Grow a Woman From the Ground (Sugar Hill) [2006]

Thile, Chris: Leading Off (Sugar Hill) [1994]

Thile, Chris: Not All Who Wander Are Lost (Sugar Hill) [2001]

Third [IIIrd] Tyme Out: Live at the MAC (Rounder) [1998]

Trischka, Tony: Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular (Rounder) [2007]

Tyminski, Dan: Carry Me Across the Mountain (Doobie Shea) [2000]

Van Cleve, Jim: No Apologies (Rural Rhythm) [2006]

Various Artists: All-Star Bluegrass Celebration (Sugar Hill) [2004]

Various Artists: Clawhammer Banjo, Volumes 1-3 (County, 3 discs) [2005]

Various Artists: Telluride Bluegrass Festival: 30 Years (Rounder) [2005]

Various Artists: The AcuTab Sessions (Rebel) [2000]

Various Artists: The Great Dobro Sessions (Sugar Hill) [1994]

Various Artists: True Life Blues--The Songs of Bill Monroe (Sugar Hill) [1996]

Vestal, Scott, Wayne Benson, John Cowan, Randy Kohrs, Jim VanCleve: Bluegrass 2001 (Pinecastle) [2001]

Vestal, Scott: Millennia (Pinecastle) [2000]

Vincent, Rhonda: The Storm Still Rages (Rounder) [2001]

Watkins, Allen: Battleground (Battleground) [2000]

Watkins, Allen: Light of the Crescent Moon (Battleground Music) [2003]

Waybacks: Burger After Church (Fiddling Cricket) [2002]

Wayfaring Strangers: Shifting Sands of Time (Rounder) [2001]

West and others, David: Pickin' on the Grateful Dead (CMH) [1997]

WhiteHouse: WhiteHouse (Pinecastle) [2003]

Williams, Jeanette: Cherry Blossoms in the Springtime (Doobie Shea) [1999]

Williamson, Tony and the Williamson Brothers Band: Still Light of the Evening (Mapleshade/Wildchild) [2001]

Williamson, Tony: Across the Grain (Plucked String) [1996]



Monday, December 13, 1993



THE PICKS OF '93: America's native bluegrass is growing red-hot around the globe.

By David Royko

These 10 releases are among the finest Bluegrass had to offer in 1993. That they include discs by Russian and Japanese musicians is testament to this American music's growing universality.

1. Kukuruza: "Crossing Borders" (Sugar Hill). This is an extraordinary bluegrass band that happens to be from Russia. It converts Russian folk tunes into bluegrass so effectively that there is never the feeling of an uneasy alliance. Irina Surina's deeply expressive voice is perfectly suited to these often profoundly moving melodies

2. Bill Monroe: "Bill Monroe And His Bluegrass Boys, Live Recordings 1956-1969" (Smithsonian/Folkways); Bill Monroe and Doc Watson, Live Duet Recordings 1963-1980 (Smithsonian/Folkways). These two volumes of previously unreleased live recordings are among the most important historical issues of recent years. The Bluegrass Boys disc includes several performances with banjoist Bill Keith that far surpass his studio work with Monroe for daring originality. The Monroe/Doc Watson disc includes vocal duets and mandolin/guitar instrumentals, and, while their voices are not an ideal match, their playing is stunning in this intensely exposed setting.

3. Marley's Ghost: "How Can I Keep From Singing" (Sage Arts). Bill Monroe meets Sam Cooke and Buddy Holly. Marley's Ghost is a band that refuses to be classified, mixing country and western, bluegrass, reggae, folk and blues to create a convincing style of its own. Speaking of Monroe, his "Working On A Building" receives an amazingly slow and massive reconstruction that exemplifies the imagination sans histrionics that touches each tune on this CD.

4. Kenny Baker: "Master Fiddler" (County). For many, including Bill Monroe, bluegrass fiddling begins and ends with Kenny Baker. Ever since the 1950s, when Baker first joined Monroe's band, his solid technique, melodic improvising, and rhythmic urgency have defined the genre. This is a compilation of instrumentals recorded between 1968 and 1983.

5. Hikaru Hasegawa: "Show By Banjo" (Rolling Hills). The notes to this Japanese import say little beyond that Hikaru Hasegawa "played all the instruments," including banjo, synthesizer, electronic-sounding drums, piano, electric guitar, fiddle, and mandolin, with proficiency ranging from good to nearly dazzling. To top it off, he has written most of these tunes, and the diversity is not only impressive, but a bit bizarre. Depending on which track is playing, you might guess you're hearing the Dixie Dregs, Vassar Clements jazz-grass, Bela Fleck, the Residents, Barefoot Jerry, or a traditional bluegrass band. For all its peculiarities, or maybe because of them, this disc is addicting.

6. Kentucky Colonels: "Appalachian Swing!" (Rounder). "Nine Pound Hammer" has had its share of great renditions, including those of acoustic guitar god Tony Rice, and this classic version by the Kentucky Colonels, from 1964, speaks volumes on where Rice's inspiration came from. The simpatico interplay between brothers Clarence and Roland White's guitar and mandolin becomes only more breathtaking with time.

7. Claire Lynch: "Friends For A Lifetime" (Brentwood). Since the late 1970s, Lynch's high, sweet-and-sultry voice has graced the Front Porch String Band, and this gospel oriented solo project finds it floating effortlessly over thirteen tunes, most composed either for or by Lynch. Dobro player Jerry Douglas proves especially adept at providing the perfect background punctuation to a vocal line.

8. Muleskinner: "Live: Original Television Soundtrack" (Sierra). This is vintage 1973 progressive bluegrass that is as fresh today as it was then. The supergroup Muleskinner (Bill Keith, Peter Rowan, David Grisman, Richard Greene, Clarence White) recorded only one studio album, making this release all the more valuable.

9. Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka: "Solo Banjo Works" (Rounder). The two kings of avant-garde banjo reassert their positions in the twang hierarchy with a disc of solo performances that defy catagories and set new standards for the old five-string.

10. Mark O'Connor: "Heroes" (Warner Brothers). Only O'Connor would have the guts to go up against everyone from Pinchas Zukerman to Jean Luc Ponty, and on their own turfs. One more bit of evidence that Mark O'Connor is the Michael Jordan of fiddling.

[Photo: Two sets of previously unreleased live recordings by Bill Monroe are among the most important historical issues of recent years.]



Sunday, December 4, 1994




Our critics' top 10 records of the year.


Low-profile acts, but with a high-octane kick.

By David Royko

Thanks in part to New Country and the "unplugged" trend, 1994 found bluegrass inching closer to mainstream acceptance. Still, if mainstream acceptance is a west-bound cross-country journey, bluegrass has probably made it as far as Philadelphia. These 10 releases represent the best this low-profile, high-octane music had to offer in 1994.

1. Chris Thile: "Leading Off" (Sugar Hill). At 13, mandolinist Chris Thile has already produced an instrumental masterpiece. Sure, he has a mountain of technique, but it is his originality as a player and composer that marks him as a future giant, and that future is not very distant.

2. The New Coon Creek Girls: "The L & N Don't Stop Here Anymore" (Pinecastle). These four women sing together with heart-stopping beauty, and play with skill and energetic abandon. And to think that women once were anomalies in the bluegrass world.

3. Various Artists: "The Great Dobro Sessions" (Sugar Hill). Ten of the finest pickers to ever slide up a string are represented here on a disc of 21 newly recorded tracks, and the supporting cast is equally stellar. It was co-produced by the reigning king of dobro mountain, Jerry Douglas, who contributes a stinging version of Weather Report's "Birdland," backed by Edgar Meyer, Stuart Duncan, Bela Fleck and Sam Bush.

4. New Grass Revival: "Best Of New Grass Revival" (Liberty). Speaking of Fleck and Bush, here they are with Pat Flynn and John Cowan in a summation of that foursome's final years as the best progressive band that ever had "grass" in its name.

5. Andy Statman: "Andy's Ramble" (Rounder). Andy Statman's bluegrass mandolin style is unique in its mingling of jazz and Eastern European influences, differing from mentor David Grisman's likeminded approach by embracing the more atonal aspects of jazz. Here, however, he plays it straight on nine excellent originals composed as a tribute to Bill Monroe.

6. Kate MacKenzie: "Let Them Talk" (Red House). Kate MacKenzie is the lead singer for the midwest bluegrass band Stoney Lonesome. For this solo release, she is supported by a cast of Nashville's instrumental royalty, as well as by Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris. MacKenzie actually sounds a little like the angelic Krauss, but a bit more devilish.

7. The New Tradition: "Old Time Gospel Jamboree" (Brentwood). Mendelssohn composed "Songs Without Words," and the men of The New Tradition have recorded gospel songs without voices. This dazzling instrumental disc is surprising in its avoidance of an overly reverential tone, dishing up unexpected and creative twists in what on paper looks like a fairly conservative program.

8. The Reno Brothers: "Acoustic Celebration" (Webco). These offspring of banjo legend Don Reno put it all together on this release, which boasts fine playing and singing, and most importantly, a dozen engaging original songs.

9. Bobby Hicks: "Texas Crapshooter" (County). This CD reissue is half Bluegrass, half Western Swing, and fiddler Bobby Hicks is a killer in both settings. Contributing to this classic are Buddy Emmons, Bucky Barrett, Buck White, Alan Munde, Sam Bush and Roland White.

10. Bill Monroe: "The Music Of Bill Monroe from 1936 to 1994" (MCA). If you want to find out what all the fuss is about, here's your chance. This lavishly-packaged four-CD set contains 98 songs played by dozens of distinguished musicians, all held together by the Father Of Bluegrass Music, aka Bill Monroe.

[Photo: Bluegrass: 13-year-old mandolinist Chris Thile creates a masterpiece.]



Sunday, December 3, 1995



THUMBS UP: Chicago Tribune critics select the best albums from 1995.


By David Royko

1. Mark Schatz: "Brand New Old Tyme Way" (Rounder)

2. Bluegrass Etc.: "Bluegrass Etc." (Sierra)

3. Gerald Evans & Joe Mullins: "Just A Five-String And A Fiddle" (Rebel)

4. Front Range: "One Beautiful Day" (Sugar Hill)

5. Steve Huber: "Pullin' Time" (Strictly Country)



This was originally posted to the "bgrass-L" newsgroup:

Date:          Tue, 10 Dec 1996

From:          David Royko

Subject:       Chicago Trib's Top 10 BG CDs (sort of)

This past Sunday (12/8), the Chicago Tribune had its annual "Top 10 CDs" article in the Sunday Arts section, and yep, once again, yours truly contributed the Bluegrass portion. Of course, life ain't always as one would like, so while the four staff critics got to do their Top 10 lists complete with commentary about each one (Rock, Jazz, Classical, Country), the Trib asked me (and 2 other regular freelancers) to give us our top 10s without commentary (Bluegrass, Blues [do you believe it, in Chicago!?], Latin). No problem, "just happy to be in their somewhere" [lifted from the movie, "The Jerk"].

Ah, but as the Trib continues trimming its alleged "Arts" [which seems to encompass more and more Television in its definition] coverage, the Bluegrass, Blues and Latin lists get lopped in half, becoming "Top 5s." So, after a few moments of gritted teeth on a Sunday morning, I [and undoubtedly, Bill Dahl (blues) and Achy Obejas (latin)] just shrug it off and move on.

Then I get this in my e-mail box from a bgrass-Ler whom I've never met nor even seen before (an admitted lurker he is, and who's lurker status I will respect by not naming his name):

“Hey, I just saw your bg top 5 list on the Tribune's AOL version, and ARE You Nuts? Haven't you heard the latest Del McCoury CD? After all the concert reviews and record reviews where you rave about him, where is he on the list???????”

So, just for the sake of completion, here is the list as it ran, along with the 5 that got lopped. And no, I didn't hear every single bluegrass-related CD that came out this year, but I did hear precisely 304. So, flame me if you will, but for the whole 10, not just 5.


Sunday, December 8, 1996



BEST MUSIC OF 1996: Just in time for holiday shopping, it's our music critics' annual look at the best recordings of 1996. Next week they will assess the best box sets of the year.


By David Royko

1. "True Life Blues--The Songs of Bill Monroe," Various Artists (Sugar Hill)

2. "Glamour and Grits," Sam Bush (Sugar Hill)

3. "Across the Grain," Tony Williamson (Plucked String)

4. "River of No Return," Ray Legere & Roger Williams (Strictly Country)

5. "The Harvest," Kathy Chiavola (My Label)

[The rest:]

6. Del McCoury Band: The Cold Hard Facts (Rounder)

7. Special Consensus: Strong Enough to Bend (Pinecastle)

8. Peter Rowan: Bluegrass Boy (Sugar Hill)

9. Northern Lights: Living In The City (Red House)

10. Richard Greene's Grass Is Greener: Wolves A' Howlin' (Rebel)

So, to my lurker buddy, There's Del!



Sunday, December 14, 1997



BEST OF THE YEAR: Top Recordings of '97


By David Royko

1. Jason Carter: "On The Move" (Rounder)

2. Breakaway: "Watershed" (Signature Sound)

3. David West and others: "Pickin' on the Grateful Dead" (CMH)

4. Phil Leadbetter: "Philibuster" (Mid-Knight)

5. Aubrey Haynie: "Doin' My Time" (Sugar Hill)



Sunday, December 16, 1998



SOUND DECISIONS: Our critics choose the best albums of the year.


By David Royko

1. Bad Livers, "Industry & Thrift" (Suagr Hill)

2. IIIrd Tyme Out, "Live at the MAC" (Rounder)

3. Sam Bush, "Howlin' at the Moon" (Sugar Hill)

4. Missy Raines, "My Place in the Sun" (MR)

5. Butch Baldassari, "New Classics for Bluegrass Mandolin" (Sound Art)



Sunday, December 5, 1999



A SIMPLE, COMPACT IDEA: Tribune critics pick the year's best music, including box sets.


By David Royko

The '90s found bluegrass as obsessed with preserving its relatively young traditions (the music was only born in the 1940s) as the '70s and '80s were defined by challenging them. This year was relatively low-key for innovations, but that didn't prevent a few iconoclasts from keeping things interesting, even as the traditionalists produced a bumper crop of great music.

1. Bela Fleck, "Tales from the Acoustic Planet, Volume 2: The Bluegrass Sessions" (Warner Bros.): Throughout the '80s, Fleck turned out a stunning series of instrumental progressive bluegrass recordings, but in the '90s, save for occasional appearances and collaborations, steered clear of bluegrass and focused on jazz, fusion and world music. With this extraordinary all-star CD of largely original modern bluegrass instrumentals, he returns, creating some of the best music of his career.

2. Dudley Connell & Don Rigsby, "Meet Me By the Moonlight" (Sugar Hill): Two of bluegrass music's best singers hook up for an album of "brother duets" a la the Louvin or Monroe Brothers. With an emphasis on classic material, the "tradition" is rarely so well served.

3. David Grisman, "Dawg Duos" (Acoustic Disc): Grisman's Acoustic Disc label is also responsible for this year's double-disc "Bluegrass Mandolin Extravaganza," which falls more within bluegrass orthodoxy, but Dawg Duos wins out for eclecticism. The duets with Fleck, Mark O'Connor, Bryan Bowers, Vassar Clements, Edgar Meyer and Mike Seeger all connect, at least tangentially, to bluegrass, but wildcards such as drummer Hal Blaine, accordionist Jim Boggio, percussionist Zakir Hussain and pianist Denny Zeitlin provide an even greater diversity of sounds and foils for Grisman.

4. Jeanette Williams, "Cherry Blossoms in the Springtime" (Doobie Shea): Williams is a singer who reconciles contradictions. Her sound is a blend of confidence and vulnerability, of tart and sweet, and of fluidity and a mildly edgy twang. Behind her are some of the music's best players, including Craig Smith, Rob Ickes and Aubrey Haynie, delivering songs that perfectly fit the singer's voice and approach.

5. Rob Ickes, "Slide City" (Rounder): The International Bluegrass Music Association's current favorite dobro player's latest solo disc finds him exploring jazz and blues, sliding through numbers such as Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" and Miles Davis' "New Blues."

6. Teagrass, "Moravian Love Songs" (G-Music): Czech mandolinist Jiri Plocek's "Teagrass" group has, across three CDs, grafted modern bluegrass to Eastern European folk forms. "Moravian Love Songs" picks up where group's mesmerizing 1995 instrumental CD, "Eastbound," left off, this time bringing compelling, idiomatic vocals into their unique sound. Is it Newgrass music or is it World Music? The answer is, yes. (It also is hard to find without this e-mail address:

7. Darol Anger-Mike Marshall Band, "Jam" (Compass): This pair released another fine disc this year as part of the Newgrange group, and that one is more bluegrassy than "Jam." But "Jam" gets the edge for capturing the manic energy and experimentalism that defines bluegrass, even as their jazzy sound, which includes drums, veers far from tradition.

8. Ron Spears, "My Time Has Come" (Copper Creek): Known more for his songs, Ron Spears can perform his own tunes with a natural, warm and soulful sound that also contains a hint of humor. It is always interesting to hear what a respected composer can do with his or her own material, and in Spears' case, the results go well beyond satisfied curiosity.

9. Bluegrass Etc., "Home Is Where the Heart Is" (Tricopolis): Banjoist Dennis Caplinger, guitarist Curtis Jones and mandolinist/vocalist John Moore are three of bluegrass music's best players; yet somehow they do not get the attention they should. Their brand of playing and arranging is some of the most creative -- and visceral -- in bluegrass.

10. Dolly Parton, "The Grass Is Blue" (Sugar Hill/Blue Eye): In recent interviews, Parton has stated that she is at a point in her career where she has the power to do whatever the heck she wants, and bluegrass is what she wants to do. She also says that being in the studio with these musicians (including Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Stuart Duncan) left her in awe. The first 30 seconds of this disc is all one needs to hear why.



Jim & Jesse, "The Old Dominion Masters" (Pinecastle, 4 CDs): After trolling through mainstream country waters for much of the late 1960s and early '70s--and snaring a few hits along the way--first generation bluegrass stars Jim & Jesse McReynolds founded Old Dominion Records in 1973, and returned to making straight-up bluegrass albums. Too often overlooked in favor of their 1950s and early '60s work, these engaging recordings--presented complete--feature not only Jim & Jesse but a handful of stellar bluegrass sidemen, and remain one of the best places to hear banjoist Vic Jordan.



Sunday, December 3, 2000





By David Royko

Not since the 1980s -- a golden age of sorts for newgrass and new acoustic pickers' projects -- has a single year yielded so many exceptional recordings by instrumentalists. The hardest to find should be available through bluegrass specialist outlets, such as County Sales ( or phone 540-745-2001).

1. Aubrey Haynie, "A Man Must Carry On" (Sugar Hill): With a tone as fat as it is refined, Aubrey Haynie's fiddling has become a frequent, if often anonymous, ingredient in country sessions produced in Nashville. His second solo album brings him out to take his bows not only for his work as a fiddler but also for his distinctive mandolin-picking and his ability to compose effectively in both traditional and progressive acoustic string styles. Haynie also has the relatively rare good sense -- for an instrumentalist, at least -- to eschew singing and hire virtuoso pipes such as Tim O'Brien, Carl Jackson and Ronnie Bowman for the vocal numbers.

2. Dan Tyminski, "Carry Me Across the Mountain" (Doobie Shea): Dan Tyminski was chosen by the Coen brothers to be George Clooney's singing voice for their upcoming movie, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Smart move. The Coens' appreciation of Tyminski's earthy power is shared by his regular employer, Alison Krauss, who lends support to this deeply satisfying album.

3. Alison Brown, "Fair Weather" (Compass): Like fellow five-string banjo picker Bela Fleck, Alison Brown seems to be most at home playing jazz -- except when she's performing bluegrass, as she does on "Fair Weather," reasserting her expertise in the land of Scruggs. All-star players and singers help Brown create her most impressive recording yet. Brown's original compositions are tricky, yet unfold with organic logic.

4. Herschel Sizemore, "My Style" (Hay Holler): There can be no doubt where mandolinist Herschel Sizemore's sympathies lie. His tone, touch and composing are the definition of traditional bluegrass, but his sound is his own. Sizemore's notes, especially when he ventures into the mandolin's upper register, ring like miniature church bells, while his rhythmic zest hints at the core of bluegrass music's ancestral roots in country dance forms. The majority of songs on "My Style" are originals, his melodic gifts as apparent in his writing as they are in his improvising.

5. Special Consensus, "25th Anniversary" (Pinecastle): Yes, Special Consensus may be Chicago's very own veteran bluegrass band, but talent like this is the property of the world. How banjoist/leader Greg Cahill manages to keep drawing great pickers to the shores of Lake Michigan, far from the beaten bluegrass track, might be a mystery, but the quality of their product is not. The current lineup of Cahill, Tim Dishman, Josh Williams and Chris Walz is as fine an outfit as has ever carried the Special C moniker, and because the second half of this long CD features recordings from incarnations past, listeners can hear just what high standards they had to meet.

6. Bob Black, "Banjoy" (Green Valley): Banjoist Bob Black is best known from his 1970s tenure with Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys, and in a just world, he would be one of today's high-profile pickers. Hopefully, this solo album will move him further in that direction. Autumnal pieces such as "The Mountains of Merrimac" transcend styles and genres. Black also has done the music world a service by featuring the brilliant, ultra-eccentric mandolinist Frank Wakefield, who records far too infrequently.

7. Allen Watkins, "Battleground" (Battleground): Dark suspicions were raised by two facts about Allen Watkins' "Battleground" CD -- first, that it has a theme, in this case, the Civil War, which could have meant that the music would be forced into a premise; and that Watkins plays virtually all of the instruments himself, which can result in weak links. So much for presumptions. This is a tour de force of writing and playing. The emphasis is on instrumentals, and Watkins is comfortable floating between the bluegrass and new acoustic camps.

8. Monroe Brothers, "What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul?" (Rounder): This not only is where it all started, it is where it was before it all started. Bill and Charlie Monroe were a popular "brother duo" in the 1930s, before Bill created the Bluegrass Boys. This is the first of a projected four-CD series of the Monroe Brothers' entire 60-song output, and it is wonderful music, even without the knowledge of what it would lead to. Their vocals are a joy, and Bill's picking was already a force of nature.

9. Scott Vestal, "Millennia" (Pinecastle): Bill Monroe might have approved of "Millennia," as long as nobody called this music any kind of "grass." But progressive banjoist Scott Vestal's pedigree includes stints with some of the best bluegrass band leaders in history, and even with tunes such as "Long Distance Runaround" (yes, by Yes, sung here by John Cowan), some Mozart, and plenty of modern originals, Vestal's roots always seem to peek out from just below the surface. To hear Vestal tear up bluegrass standards, try the equally impressive "Bluegrass 2000" project, on the same record label.

10. Various artists, "The AcuTab Sessions" (Rebel): AcuTab is a company that publishes music transcription books for those who want to learn how their heroes do what they do. The underlying concept for this disc is to showcase these virtuosi. The results are exquisite. From duos to full ensembles, instrumentals to vocals, the creativity of the combinations and the sparks that result make this a must-have for the hard-core fan as well as a terrific entry point for the curious and newly smitten.



DECEMBER 9, 2001





By David Royko

Bluegrass music's big story of 2001 was the soundtrack to the Coen brothers' movie, "O Brother, Where Art Thou," which brought many performers, and stylistic antecedents, of bluegrass to a triple-platinum audience. Perhaps paradoxically, however, the two most exciting releases of the year (From Chris Thile and the Wayfaring Strangers) in some respects are more representative of the genre's original rule-breaking spirit, which was revolutionary when Bill Monroe forged the music's sound in the mid-1940s, even if, for many fans, bluegrass has since become the very embodiment of folkloric Americana. At the same time, there has been no lack of brilliant art created by those whose hearts will always beat in the body of the tradition.

1. CHRIS THILE: Not All Who Wander Are Lost (Sugar Hill). Mandolinist Chris Thile's third album is a masterpiece so breathtaking, it must be ranked among the 10 best progressive bluegrass instrumental projects of all time. His composing and arranging are at once complex and accessible, his flair for melody equaled by an exceptional gift for improvising, while every track, even the most reflective, is imbued with a joyous sense of celebration. His collaborators, including Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Stuart Duncan, Bryan Sutton, Edgar Meyer, and members of Thile's band Nickel Creek, are the type of like-minded innovators required to do his compositions justice, and are among the very few who are in his class as instrumentalists. Thile, all of 20 years old, has produced one for the ages.

2. THE WAYFARING STRANGERS: Shifting Sands of Time (Rounder). The Wayfaring Strangers represents perhaps the boldest musical statement to come out of the bluegrass world of the past decade. Matt Glaser's stylistic amalgam of bluegrass, jazz, old-time country, klezmer, and torch balladry has spun a slightly dark romanticism betraying none of the seams of what, in other hands, could have come off as a stylistically disjointed crazy quilt. The key is that everyone is playing to their strengths, and most of the players are expert at more than one form of music, from Andy Statman's klezmer mastery and jazz atonality, to Tony Trischka's knowledge of old-time banjo as well as the newgrass he helped to define, fused by Glaser's ability to do it all. But it is the revolving door of singers that crowns this program, some stretching themselves in beguiling ways. Rhonda Vincent's sultry "Rank Stranger," Lucy Kaplansky's keening and mournful "High on a Mountain," Jennifer Kimball's visceral "June Apple," and Tim O'Brien's soulfully swinging "I'm Blue, I'm Lonesome Too" are only some of the vocal highlights of a profoundly moving musical journey.

3. DEL MCCOURY BAND: Del and the Boys (Ceili). The miracle of Del McCoury and his boys is that they are able to make some of the most creative and exciting music while riding that thin line between modern and traditional bluegrass, somehow satisfying both camps. McCoury's tenor cuts to one's soul like a laser scalpel, and the listener can't help but be swept along, even if the vinegar of his highest of lonesome voices might take some aural adjustment for a newcomer. His band--sons Ronnie and Rob on mandolin and banjo, fiddler Jason Carter and bassist Mike Bub--are arguably the finest working ensemble in the business, and this disc is particularly inspired, delivering both the comforts and surprises of the best bluegrass.

4. RALPH STANLEY AND FRIENDS: Clinch Mountain Sweethearts (Rebel). After more than a half century of life as a professional bluegrass musician, Ralph Stanley is probably more famous now than ever, thanks to his part in the "O Brother" phenomenon, but one has to think that collaborating with fifteen of his favorite female singers gave him an even bigger musical endorphin rush. Singing duets involves more than finding a pleasing harmony and warbling in tune. Issues of phrasing and blending timbres can spell success or failure, so it is remarkable that each one of these tracks works, and several are sublime, including those with Pam Tillis ("Will You Miss Me"), Joan Baez ("Weeping Willow"), and Lucinda Williams ("Farther Along"). Other collaborators include Dolly Parton, Gillian Welch, Maria Muldaur, Iris Dement, Gail Davies, and Valerie Smith.

5. TONY WILLIAMSON AND THE WILLIAMSON BROTHERS BAND: Still Light of the Evening (Mapleshade/Wildchild). Look no further than the Williams Brothers for a lesson on precisely what makes brother duets so unique. The two men--Tony and Gary--sing as one while maintaining their own individual sounds, and make it seem easy. Brother Tony also is among the finest mandolinists alive, and the instrumental passages, featuring an excellent band assembled for this session, dazzle without ever lapsing into flashiness. This is great music hiding behind genuine humility.

6. CHARLES SAWTELLE: Music from Rancho deVille (Acoustic Disc). Charles Sawtelle, best known for his work with Hot Rize, died of leukemia in 1999, but not before completing most of this album even as he battled through the final years of his illness. Though a few gaps were later filled in by his musical friends, the disc feels like a finished project, not a collection of scraps, and encompasses Sawtelle's wide range of tastes, from bluegrass through Tex-Mex, blues, old-time, and Cajun. The roster is impressive and reads like an acoustic who's who with the likes of David Grisman, Pete Wernick, Flaco Jimenez, Todd Phillips, Tim and Mollie O'Brien, Norman Blake, Michael Doucet, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Peter Rowan, Richard Greene, Vassar Clements, and Darol Anger. "Angel Band," which closes the disc on a serene and hymn-like note, features a chorus of close friends and colleagues, providing a fitting memorial to a big musical personality.

7. SCOTT VESTAL, WAYNE BENSON, JOHN COWAN, RANDY KOHRS, JIM VANCLEVE: Bluegrass 2001 (Pinecastle). For seven straight years now, the fiercely out-there banjoist Scott Vestal has assembled a band of ace pickers for instrumental workouts, usually of bluegrass classics. This year, however, the majority of the cuts are original pieces by Vestal and his fellow players, which was just the injection this excellent series (Bluegrass '95, '96, etc.) needed to keep things interesting. Even the material from outside sources include a couple of surprises from composers Sam Bush ("Fosters Reel") and Richard Strauss (three guesses), setting the table for the hot and tasty--and tasteful--licks served up by all.

8. RHONDA VINCENT: The Storm Still Rages (Rounder). A professional since she was a child with the family band "The Sally Mountain Show," Rhonda Vincent's profile is finally matching her talent. The International Bluegrass Music Association gave her the 2001 awards for Entertainer of the Year and Female Vocalist, the latter for the second straight year, though many would argue that the "female" part of the award is unnecessary--she belts out bluegrass as well as anyone, and better than most. Vincent also is a fine mandolinist, and her musicians match her fire, while the choice of tunes, mixing old with the new, showcases Vincent's pipes like a diamond in a perfect setting.

9. BILL EVANS: Bill Evans Plays Banjo (Native and Fine). A doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of California at Berkeley and an alumnus of the Dry Branch Fire Squad, banjoist Bill Evans has a world view shared by a precious few, and it shows in the subtle breadth of his own bluegrass playing and, especially, through his composing. Evans infuses each with hints of jazz, classical, and music of other realms, all fitting snuggly into his conception of the bluegrass sound. The result is an album touched by that certain spark that marks it as a future instrumental classic, a disc that only improves with every hearing.

10. DALE ANN BRADLEY: Cumberland River Dreams (Doobie Shea). In 1994, The New Coon Creek Girls' album, "The L & N Don't Stop Here Anymore," made it into this space's Bluegrass Top 10, and one big reason was the stirring vocals of Dale Ann Bradley. Her approach to bluegrass, at least as presented on "Cumberland River Dreams," is one of an almost spiritual gentleness, like bluegrass served on a down pillow. Bradley's shimmering voice hints at a prairie breeze, while she and her band glide through their material as gracefully as a flock of doves. No, it doesn't hit you between the eyes, but who says bluegrass isn't allowed to caress?

[Photo: Tony Williamson, among the finest mandolinists alive, dazzles without flashiness.]

[Photo: Del McCoury Band deliver some of the most creative and exciting bluegrass around.]

[Arts & Entertainment front page photo: The Year's Best: Recordings. Music Masters of 2001: The Recordings of Choice, from Dylans 'Love and Theft' to Loveless' 'Mountain Soul.' Bluegrass: Chris Thile "Not All Who Wander Are Lost." Page 16.]

[Chicago Tribune front page caption: Arts & Entertainment: Our Music Critics Choose The Best. From rock (Bob Dylan) to country (Patty Loveless) and from latin (El Gran Silencio) to bluegrass (Chris Thile), here are the CDs you need to hear.]


Chicago Tribune

Sunday, December 15, 2002


Best CDs of 2002



By David Royko

1. Alison Krauss & Union Station, "Live" (Rounder). This is the album to get if you have never heard Krauss and her band, which features dobro king Jerry Douglas. This double-disc set includes several tracks not available on other AKUS albums (including Soggy Bottom Dan Tyminski singing his now-signature "Man of Constant Sorrow"), and presents Krauss and the group in their free-range glory, from her whispers-in-the-shadows delicacy to aggressive, full-tilt bluegrass.

2. Nickel Creek, "This Side" (Sugar Hill). Are they bluegrass? The same question dogged New Grass Revival 30 years ago, and in the end, who cares? With Chris Thile's mandolin leading the way, Nickel Creek is the new standard for acoustic string music, and "This Side" is as close to a "statement" as the New Acoustic Music scene has produced in a generation.

3. Mark Johnson/Emory Lester, "Acoustic Campaign" (Bangtown). Mark Johnson gooses the pre-Scruggs, pre-bluegrass clawhammer-style banjo into the present by channeling contemporary composing through antique techniques. Mandolinist/guitarist Emory Lester is one of those unsung, creative progressive pickers that musicians lionize. Together, they make music at once new, comfortingly familiar and always engaging.

4. Buddy Greene, "Rufus" (Rufus Music). Singer, guitarist and harmonica man Buddy Greene has a style that combines friendly informality with an energized, whipcrack precision. With all-star help from the likes of Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Chuck Leavell, Greene manages to make tunes such as "Sally Goodin," "All My Loving," and "Deep River Blues" -- warhorses from disparate genres -- sound like new.

5. Special Consensus, "Route 10" (Pinecastle). After nearly three decades, Greg Cahill, banjoist/leader of Special C, continues to alchemize turnover into a secret weapon. It always seems that whatever the current lineup, it's the best yet, and with Josh Williams and Jamie Clifton on board for their latest album, this version of the band just might be, well, the best yet.

6. Kathy Chiavola, "From Where I Stand" (My Label). The first track, "Goin Away Party," is a remarkable duet with singer/guitarist Chiavola and the dedicatee of this memorial tribute, her late partner, fiddler Randy Howard. If you make it through with dry eyes (or even if you don't), the reward is a full disc offering a bounty of styles, all enveloped by Chiavola's peerless pipes.

7. The Waybacks, "Burger After Church" (Fiddling Cricket). A near-ideal balance of irreverence, chops, discipline, and originality separate the Waybacks from many bands that share their "jamgrass" audience.

8. Lonesome River Band, "Window of Time" (Doobie Shea). With new faces surrounding banjoist Sammy Shelor, the LRB has returned to a harder-edged sound, and delivers a crackling set that keeps the drive quotient high without sacrificing the band's vaunted contemporary flavor.

9. Big Country Bluegrass, "The Real Deal" (Hay Holler). No big stars here, just a fine traditional bluegrass band from Virginia that emphasizes teamwork and serious musical values. Their no-frills approach evokes an earlier time when bands like this always seemed to be appearing just down the road, except few of them could hope to be this good.

10. The Crooked Jades, "Unfortunate Rake" (Copper Creek). Old-time string music that might appeal as much to the pierced generation as to their great grandparents, the Crooked Jades are a band of West Coast pickers with equal parts attitude and respect. They transform a form of music that thrives on energy by replacing the coal with musical nukes, along the way evoking the music's original purpose by making the listener want to get up and dance.




SUNDAY, December 14, 2003



By David Royko

Special to the Tribune

The year 2003 turned out to be an exceptionally bountiful year for outstanding instrumental albums, from veterans as well as young ’uns from both traditional bluegrass and the outer orbits of the newgrass galaxy.

1. SAM BUSH & DAVID GRISMAN: Hold On We're Strummin' (Acoustic Disc)

What could have been a loose, informal jamming project instead turns out to be a treasure trove of new, tightly arranged compositions by newgrass music’s two most important pioneers. Several cuts are unaccompanied duos, the rest include a full band back-up, while a few fragments of longer jams serve as petite palette cleansers between the main courses. The opening cut, “Hartford's Real,” reminiscent of Grisman’s original all-string quintets of the late ‘70s, sets the joyous tone for this double-mandolin masterpiece.

2. MIKE MARSHALL & CHRIS THILE: Into the Cauldron (Sugar Hill)

Another album by two mandolin monsters, “Into The Cauldron” could be a roadmap for the instrument’s future. On purely technical terms, Thile’s and Marshall’s only real peers are each other, while their composing and improvising are so intriguing yet soulful as to render this album recommendable as pure music and not simply an orgy for mandolin fanatics.

3. DEL McCOURY BAND: It's Just the Night (McCoury Music)

McCoury and his group have released so many superb albums over the years that it would be tempting to consider them all of a piece, but “It's Just the Night,” like most of the albums that have preceded it, has its own distinctive profile. His bandmates, which include super-picker sons Ronnie and Robbie, keep bringing papa Del unusual—at least for bluegrass—repertoire and he incorporates it all into the McCoury Band sound, making the DMB the most progressive of “traditional” bluegrass groups.

4. MARK O'CONNOR: Thirty Year Retrospective (OMAC)

Recorded in concert, violinist O’Connor surveyed his past by assembling a magnificent “string quartet” of mandolinist Chris Thile (of Nickel Creek), guitarist Bryan Sutton and bassist Byron House to help him reveal the very best of each of his compositions. Several pieces, such as "Stone from which the Arch was Made," improve upon their original versions, with the new arrangements and instrumentation working better than some of the original production decisions O’Connor made in his post-Rounder, early Warner Bros. days.

5. KARL SHIFLETT & BIG COUNTRY SHOW: Worries on My Mind (Rebel)

Karl Shiflett’s music is pure fun, delivered with humor and a sense of style that harkens back to an earlier era. Even if their entertainment value is as high as their pretense is low, these are fine musicians with an uncanny sense for the perfect balance between “aw shucks” and serious artistry.

6. ANDY LEFTWICH: Ride (Skaggs Family)

A Ricky Skaggs discovery, and now a member of Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder, fiddler/mandolinist Leftwich straddles the fence between straight bluegrass and progressive picking, with his writing and arranging merging the two ends of the spectrum with a seamless sense of “rightness.” At the core of his vast technique is a glistening tone not unlike that of his colleague of similar youth, Chris Thile.

7. TEAM FLATHEAD: The Huber Banjo Sessions (Huber)

Team Flathead is a tag-team of top rank banjoists--Sammy Shelor, Jim Mills, Ron Stewart, Steve Huber and John Lawless—each delivering a couple of tunes, the net result being some of the best straight bluegrass banjo picking on disc. What’s more, the spectacular audiophile sound allows one to bathe in the instruments’ hard-edged sensuality.

8. WHITEHOUSE: WhiteHouse (Pinecastle)

A bluegrass supergroup with a difference, WhiteHouse features Larry Stephenson, David Parmley, Missy Raines, Jason Carter and Charlie Cushman. It is striking how much this cherry-picked ensemble of individuals from various top bands sounds like a working unit. That cohesiveness lends the warhorse-heavy program a wallop that all-star aggregates rarely achieve.

9. ALLEN WATKINS: Light of the Crescent Moon (Battleground Music)

An alumnus of the Front Porch String Band and the Lonesome River Band, Watkins’ most recent solo album is a collection of distinctive original pieces for banjo, grafting often fiendishly tricky passages to rich, infectious melody. His is a major talent deserving far wider recognition.

10. KATSUYUKI MIYAZAKI: Mandoscape (Red Clay)

Miyazaki released an appealing instrumental CD in 1996 (Man-O-Mandolin), but both in terms of playing as well as writing, his latest far surpasses the earlier disc. Assembling a cast of versatile players, including the intensely creative banjoist Scott Vestal, fat-toned fiddler Aubrey Haynie, and the brilliant guitarist David Grier, Miyazaki’s range of composing reveals a streak of romanticism even when he is burning through a breathlessly flashy showstopper.

[Photo: Sam Bush & David Grisman--Hold On We're Strummin'; Photo: Jason Carter of the Del McCoury Band, the most progressive of "traditional" bluegrass groups.]


Chicago Tribune

Arts & Entertainment

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The Year’s Best: Recordings


By David Royko

Special to the Tribune

That every one of these CDs comes from an independent label drives home the fact that bluegrass, from the most hard-core traditional to the corners of newgrass, was an “alternative” music genre long before “alt” became a marketing niche. Even though the music’s visibility has grown tremendously since the bluegrass-related “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack became a surprise hit—the big guns at Sony have even issued an impressive but flawed 4 CD bluegrass anthology: “Can't You Hear Me Callin’”--most of the action of the bluegrass scene is still documented by indi labels, and beautifully so.

1. RICKY SKAGGS & KENTUCKY THUNDER: Brand New Strings (Skaggs Family)

When Skaggs left commercial country and re-entered the bluegrass world 8 years ago, he did it via the songs of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers, in the process introducing many listeners to the classic cannon while creating some of the best music of his career. These days, as displayed on Brand New Strings, Skaggs is applying the stunning bluegrass talents of his Kentucky Thunder group to fresh material, proving that there is still plenty to do within the world of “traditional” bluegrass.

2. RED ALLEN: Keep On Going—The Rebel & Melodeon Recordings/Lonesome And Blue—The Complete County Recordings (Rebel)

The mid-‘60s recordings singer/guitarist Red Allen made for the independent labels Rebel, Melodeon and County stand as true bluegrass classics, as direct in their raw, emotional expression as they are dazzling for the instrumental backing. While the latter disc includes early performances by future stars Richard Greene and David Grisman, some of the best music is to be found on the first CD, courtesy of the iconoclastic mandolinist Frank Wakefield.

3. DEMOLITION STRING BAND: Where the Wild, Wild Flowers Grow—The Songs of Ola Belle Reed (Okra-Tone)

When Demolition String Band’s lead singer Elena Skye first heard Ola Belle Reed’s own recording of her classic song, “High on a Mountain,” a decade ago, it lead to what might be described as an obsession. This disc is the result, a beautiful tribute to the North Carolina native and recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Award. While Skye’s natural voice might be a bit smoother than Belle Reed’s, she and her band manage to evoke their tributee’s power and guileless delivery while bringing the music’s message into the present day.

4. ALISON KRAUSS & UNION STATION: Lonely Runs Both Ways (Rounder)

Another Alison Krauss album, and another top 10 pick. How does she do it? For one thing, Krauss seems to wait until she has an album’s worth of winners before she enters the studio, her non-doctrinaire tastes drawing from any and all sources, including the finest songwriter in Union Station, banjoist Ron Block. There is, of course, Krauss’ voice, which can be both whispery yet potent at the same time. Finally, it also helps to have an exceptional band, with dobro giant Jerry Douglas front and center while sharing the spotlight on his instrumental, “Unionhouse Branch.”

5. NOAM PIKELNY: In the Maze (Compass)

After stints with Czech guitar virtuoso Slavek Hanzlik and the defunct jamband juggernaut Leftover Salmon, banjoist Noam Pikelny, a native of the Chicago area, is now a member of former New Grass Revival vocalist John Cowan’s band. His first solo album makes clear why he was grabbed by Cowan when Leftover Salmon disbanded. While his influences might be easy to spot, with Bela Fleck the most obvious, Pikelny’s playing and composing offer a tastefully distinctive style. This instrumental project finds him in the company of some of the top acoustic players in the business, including guitarist David Grier and bassist Todd Phillips.

6. THE BISCUIT BURNERS: Fiery Mountain Music (Indidog)

The Biscuit Burners somehow sound relaxed even on fast numbers like “Mountain Lily” or their up-tempo instrumental, “Autry’s Apple Orchard,” and when they get into a slower ballad, their sound becomes downright hypnotic. Part of this can be attributed to the cohesive, seamless profile the band achieves—it seems so effortless. But it is the super-sultry singing of Shannon Whitworth on songs like her own “Come On Darlin’” that casts the strongest spell.

7. ANDREW COLLINS & MARC ROY: Likewise (sytesounds)

These two progressive pickers, mandolinist Collins, of The Creaking Tree String Quartet, and guitarist Roy, of the Emory Lester Set, have crafted a set of thoughtful original instrumentals that, while providing effective launching pads for creative improvising, stand up nicely as compositions. The pair are more focused on musical ideas than on showing off their impressive chops, though on numbers like the lively “Get Outta Hogtown,” they leave no stone unturned when virtuosity is called for.

8. NASHVILLE BLUEGRASS BAND: Twenty Year Blues (Sugar Hill)

Stuart Duncan’s moaning fiddle solo on “Sitting On Top Of The World” is only one highlight of an album celebrating their 20-year anniversary, but it exemplifies much of what makes the Nashville Bluegrass Band special. Rarely flashy even though they could be--mandolinist Mike Compton in particular--the NBB chooses instead to go for taste and a soulful yet slightly restrained delivery that reminds listeners of the place blues had in the birth of bluegrass. The vocals of Alan O'Bryant and Pat Enright remain a marvel, even more so since the band’s collaborations with the Fairfield Four, whose influence is stark on the gospel track, “Hush.”

9. DANNY ROBERTS: Mandolin Orchard (Butler Music Group)

Danny Roberts is best known for his two decades with the New Tradition and is now a member of the freshly-minted, all-bluegrass-veteran group, The Grascals, a.k.a. Dolly Parton’s band. Since he is hardly a newcomer, the extraordinary artistry of “Mandolin Orchard” shouldn’t have brought about an aural double-take, but bluegrass instrumental albums this tasty don’t appear very often. From the hardcore ‘grass of the opening track, “AndiWayne,” through the jazzy twists of “O.A.I.,” Roberts hits one home run after another.

10. VARIOUS ARTISTS: All-Star Bluegrass Celebration (Sugar Hill)

The soundtrack album from the PBS TV concert (there’s also a DVD available with additional material), this is a fine snapshot of the state of bluegrass today. The music’s outskirts are covered by Nickel Creek as well as bluegrass fan Bruce Hornsby, whose piano could be considered the ultimate interloper. But the modern bluegrass mainstream is well represented by, among others, Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, and Del McCoury, with Ralph Stanley and Earl Scruggs providing the first generation bookends.

Ultimate iPod Playlist Pick: The Biscuit Burners: Come On Darlin'. On the song's choruses, the sultry tang of Shannon Whitworth's vocals contrast deliciously with the twangy humor of the dobro's stuttering responses.



Arts & Entertainment

Sunday, December 11, 2005


Our Writers’ Top Albums by Genre



By David Royko

Special to the Tribune

The Bluegrass music world owes much of its vitality to the musical diversity of its practitioners and their collective comfort (and occasional discomfort) with maintaining the traditions of the past while forging ahead into innovative territory. These are some particularly exciting recordings that, together, exemplify the music’s balancing of the past with the future.

1. New Grass Revival: Grass Roots: The Best of New Grass Revival (Capitol, 2 discs)

By the time they wrapped up their 18-year run in 1989, New Grass Revival had become a supergroup featuring Sam Bush, Pat Flynn, John Cowan, and Bela Fleck. That lineup certainly justifies the now-standard appellation of “legendary,” but this set succeeds in tracing the history of NGR from their shaggy-haired, revolutionary origins of the early ‘70s that featured the 20-year-old phenom—and co-founder—Bush, through to the group’s final concert. A generous and revealing dose of previously unissued studio and live tracks mingle with selections from each of their studio releases, making this a must-have for hard-core collectors as well as newbie New Grassers.

2. Jamie Hartford: Part of Your History—The Songs of John Hartford (New Sheriff)

Jamie Hartford gathered together a clutch of his father’s friends and favorite collaborators for this tribute to the unique musician who died in 2001. Even if one chooses to ignore the extra-musical elements, from a purely musical standpoint, the results are nearly magical, with musicians including Vassar Clements, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, David Grisman, Nanci Griffith, Tim O'Brien, Ronnie McCoury, Norman Blake, and Emmylou Harris delivering peak performances for their departed old buddy.

3. Psychograss: Now Hear This (Adventure Music America)

The only problem with Psychograss is that these guys don’t record more often. This quintet is responsible for some of the finest New Acoustic Music (the progressive, instrumental branch of the bluegrass tree) of the past decade, yet this is only their third release. Now Hear This proves once again that, when it comes to creating music that is simultaneously complex and challenging yet accessible and instantly appealing, Psychograss satisfies.

4. Kenny & Amanda Smith Band: Always Never Enough (Rebel)

The K&ASB includes two of the finest players in bluegrass—guitarist Kenny Smith and banjoist Steve Huber—and though this group can easily dazzle with their chops, the emphasis here is the songs and putting them across with an ear always bent toward beauty of sound. And though the band never forsakes drive, when Amanda Smith is singing, bluegrass doesn’t come much more beautiful.

5. Peter Feldmann: Grey Cat on the Tennessee Farm—Songs of Uncle Dave Macon (Hen Cackle Records)

Old-Time entertainer Macon (1870-1952) receives both a tribute and an overhaul by Feldmann and his Pea Patch Quintet of super-pickers (including Byron Berline, Dan Crary and Dennis Caplinger). The group evokes the huge personality of Macon as they interpret his music in an updated, bluegrass style.

6. Andy Statman: Flatbush Waltz (Rounder Archive)

One of the true masterpieces from Rounder’s first decade, this 1980 jazz-klezmer-worldgrass album is among the inaugural releases on the label’s Archive series, available as a download or as a mail-order CD. The one-of-a-kind Statman fuses the cross-picking of Jesse McReynolds with the atonal jabs of Albert Ayler, embodying like no other mandolinist jazz’s "sound of surprise."

7. Del McCoury Band: The Company We Keep (McCoury Music/Sugar Hill)

McCoury’s latest is another riveting album brimming with imaginative song selection, creative arranging, soulful soloing, giddy virtuosity, and high-lonesome bluegrass singing at its best

8. Various Artists: Telluride Bluegrass Festival: 30 Years (Rounder)

The Telluride Festival has always stretched the boundaries of the definition of bluegrass to, or maybe past, the breaking point, but with music as good as this--from Hot Rize and Sam Bush to Nickel Creek and the Horseflies--who cares?

9. Various Artists: Clawhammer Banjo, Volumes 1-3 (County, 3 discs)

Three discs (available separately) of mainly solo, instrumental banjo might seem like overkill, but there is something special about this collection, most of which was recorded from 1965 to 1971. Clawhammer style is the precursor to the 5-string bluegrass picking that is now, for most people, synonymous with the instrument, but the older manner holds a power that has had a direct influence on performers as diverse as traditional bluegrass pioneer Ralph Stanley and Mark Johnson’s innovative “Clawgrass” projects.

10. Jesse McReynolds & Charles Whitstein: A Tribute to Brother Duets (Pinecastle)

Charles Whitstein and Jesse McReynold’s each lost the other half of their respective brother duets in 2001 and 2002, and instead of joining together simply to pay musical tribute to their brothers, they have widened the net to salute fellow brethren such as the Stanleys, Delmores, Louvins, Monroes, and the Blue Sky Boys. The music is extraordinary in its beauty and the emotional involvement of these veterans.


Chicago Tribune

December 12, 2006

Arts & Entertainment


Newcomers don't play second fiddle to the genre's traditionalists

By David Royko

Special to the Tribune

Bluegrass continues to evolve and expand, its increasing use as a musical spice mixed in with other styles a happy development for a type of music that, only a decade ago, most people had never heard of. This year's batch of discs is equal parts "newgrass" -- the genre's wild child -- and traditional bluegrass, the balance between convention and innovation stirring up a stylistic aeration that helps the music stay healthy.

1. Chris Thile: "How To Grow a Woman From the Ground" (Sugar Hill)

After wandering ever further from bluegrass with Nickel Creek and his own solo albums over the past decade, mandolinist/singer Thile charges back to home base with a modernist bluegrass grand slam. Strutting their stuff with the boss is Thile's cherry-picked crop of like-aged (mid-20s) acoustic virtuosi, including local boys Greg Garrison on bass and Noam Pikelny on banjo.

2. Dale Ann Bradley: "Catch Tomorrow" (Compass)

A voice that ranks with the very best women of bluegrass, Bradley's has a slightly darker tone -- softened by a plush, breathy cushion -- than Alison Krauss or Rhonda Vincent, and she applies it with force and impressive expressive range. Backed by a crack crew of sidemen, Bradley's bluegrass is, as Bill Monroe might have said, powerful music.

3. Michael Cleveland: "Let 'er Go, Boys!" (Rounder)

Another of the young guns and already an alumnus of the bands of Dale Ann Bradley and Rhonda Vincent, twentysomething fiddler Cleveland's band is called Flamekeeper, as was his first solo album, and that's what he is all about -- keeping alive the bluegrass tradition he loves. "Let 'er Go Boys" is the bluegrass life force personified. With guest vocalists such as Vince Gill, Del McCoury and Larry Sparks, the singing rises to the same level as the dazzling picking.

4. Jim Van Cleve: "No Apologies" (Rural Rhythm)

Fiddler for the bluegrass band Mountain Heart, 26-year-old Van Cleve's solo debut packs a wallop, delivering distinctive modern bluegrass that yanks tradition into the kids' playhouse for some musical roughhousing. The instrumental contributions of guitarists Clay Jones and Byron House, mandolinist Adam Steffey, banjoist Ron Stewart and dobroist Rob Ickes each deserve mention for helping make "No Apologies" so tasty.

5. Andy Statman: "East Flatbush Blues" (Shefa)

If traditional bluegrass fans ruled Congress, the jewel case of "East Flatbush Blues" would likely have something akin to a parental advisory sticker, warning of its explicitly out-there jazz content. New Yorker Andy Statman is probably better known these days as a Klezmer superstar and clarinet protege of Dave Tarras, but he is also the newgrass mandolin protege of David Grisman, and this mandolin/bass/drums instrumental album is a rare feast--Statman’s newgrass recordings go back more than 30 years but come few and far between these days--because Statman is simply one of the greatest and most unique musicians ever to choose mandolin for their muse.

6. Sam Bush: "Laps in Seven" (Sugar Hill)

Somehow, Bush has not only maintained the cyclonic energy and drive that ignited newgrass music when he was barely out of high school in the early 1970s, but he is, if anything, more creative now. From instrumentals such as his own "The Dolphin Dance" and Jean Luc Ponty's "New Country," with Ponty as guest, to John Hartford's cockeyed "On the Road" and the blistering bluegrass of "Bringing in the Georgia Mail," the King of newgrass has, once again, made a great record.

7. Gil, Cartas & Tuey: "The Lonely Hippo" (

The international trio of Gil Gutierrez (guitar), Pedro Cartas (violin) and Tuey Connell (banjo) have named flamenco, Cuban son, bossa nova and tango along with bluegrass to describe the music they play, but the best way to describe something like their lilting, deeply evocative "Irene y Diego" would be magic. Their blend of styles is both seamless and loaded with melodic ideas that linger in the ear.

8. Curly Seckler: "Bluegrass Don't You Know" (Copper Creek)

A professional musician since 1935, Seckler is part of bluegrass music's first generation, his greatest fame coming with the greatest years of Flatt & Scruggs, from the late '40s to the early '60s, for whom he provided both mandolin and vocals. His fabled tenor voice, while certainly aged, has retained every ounce of its engaging personality, and first-rate pickers such as Herschel Sizemore and Larry Perkins help their star shine.

9. Mike Compton & David Long: "Stomp" (Acoustic Disc)

Compton carries the Monroe mandolin mantle lighter than anyone, and his fellow eight-string partner Long is the perfect companion of this trip back to early bluegrass and the even earlier string band music that anticipated it. The informal-sounding vocals won't please anyone seeking polish, but their mandolin (and mandola) duets balance discipline with a relaxed spontaneity.

10. Jimmy Arnold: Riding "With Ol' Mosby" (Rebel)

With a life wild enough to prove that truth can be stranger than fiction, Arnold's ended in 1992, his 40 years probably more than anyone who knew of his struggles would have predicted. He left a tiny but mighty legacy of bluegrass recordings that Rebel has sifted to compile this overview, displaying his uncanny gifts as a banjoist, fiddler, guitarist, singer and composer, and making one hope that his entire catalog will be back in print -- it's only three albums.



Sunday, December 16, 2007


Best of 2007: MUSIC

This year we asked our contributing music writers to name their five favorite albums of the year, and we encouraged them to look to multiple genres.

By David Royko




Bela Fleck and Earl Scruggs are just two of the eight banjo gods joining Tony Trischka for his best recording since 1983’s “Robot Plane Flies Over Arkansas” album, backed by a slew of additional string deities like mandolinists Sam Bush and Chris Thile.



(4 CD boxed set; Bear Family)

Covering his final decade or so, and containing some of his greatest instrumental compositions, Bear Family concludes the most important reissue series in bluegrass history--the complete studio (and some live) recordings led by Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass.




A creative high point for both the pianist and the banjoist, Corea and Fleck make a seemingly incompatible pair of acoustic instruments dance through a mainly original program of challenging but accessible jazz.




State of the art prog rock that most frequently brings middle-period King Crimson to mind, Battles is a powerhouse quartet that mixes minimalist repetition with odd time signatures, darkly impressionistic soundscapes, and quirky, fever-dream vocals, the last delivered by guitarist Tyondai (son of avant garde jazz legend Anthony) Braxton.




One of this year’s happiest classical stories has been the CD resurrection of the British Lyrita label, and even if Malcom Arnold is not as obscure as many of the composers Lyrita has illuminated, these delightful miniatures have never sounded better than in these exquisitely recorded definitive performances.


Sunday, December 14, 2008

Chicago Tribune

Arts & Entertainment

Best Music of the Year 2008

Top Five CDs


By David Royko

Influenced by classical forms, the Sparrow Quartet's gorgeous yet sophisticated Mozartian aesthetic offers a striking contrast to the Beethovenian sturm und drang of Chris Thile's Punch Brothers.



This unique ensemble combines the older, clawhammer-style banjo, played by vocalist Washburn, with Bela Fleck's peerless 5-string banjo, and mixes a few traditional Chinese folk melodies with wide-ranging Americana. Completed by violinist Casey Driessen and cellist Ben Solee, the Sparrows have created a deeply affecting masterpiece.



Thile and his band of young acoustic string wizards apply abstract lyrics to music as demanding as Newgrass gets. Their breathtaking virtuosity isn't about soloing but complex ensemble unity, with a cumulative power that leaves the listener pleasantly rung out.



Simon Chrisman's hammered dulcimer, usually a folk instrument, lends this modern trio a distinctive tang. Banjoist Wes Corbett and guitarist Jordan Tice are also of the new generation of acoustic string players, all three composing melodic, concise and joyfully engaging music.



Stanley's clawhammer banjo is among the joys of the bluegrass world, while his voice is intensely moving. Half of these 18 cuts are new, and most of the others are new to CD, all strongly recommended to fans of traditional bluegrass and its antecedents.



Fleck returns to his first label, Rounder, for a rarity--a holiday album that transcends the genre. The Tuvan Alash Ensemble, bassist and MacArthur "Genius" Edgar Meyer, and mandolin/clarinet iconoclast Andy Statman join the Flecktones for a wild and wooly jaunt through a winter hinterland, including a "12 Days of Christmas" that matches each day with its appropriate time signature, an archetypal Flecktones touch.

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