The Lonesome Road Review’s list of Top 10 bluegrass CDs of 2011, as chosen by editor Aaron Keith Harris.
1. Del McCoury Band — Old Memories: The Songs of Bill Monroe (McCoury Music) In the year celebrating the centennial of Bill Monroe’s birth, no tribute project hit the mark as exactly as this one. Read more about it in AKH’s review here.
2. Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers — Hymns from the Hills (Rebel Records) Mullins takes enough time off from the radio business to turn in a star-studded gospel triumph. More in AKH’s review here.
3. Dale Ann Bradley — Somewhere South of Crazy (Compass Records) Bradley’s third Compass album, and eighth overall, continues her measured but steady ascension to the highest levels of bluegrass performance and reverence. Again working with producer Alison Brown, Somewhere South of Crazy is Bradley’s most obviously contemporary bluegrass recording.
Over recent albums, Bradley’s music has become increasingly polished while retaining the traditional spirit that has been her hallmark. It is this duality that makes Bradley’s music so appealing. As a recording artist should, Dale Ann Bradley improves her performance with each album. Fully realized and confident, Bradley exudes bluegrass and has never sounded better than on Somewhere South of Crazy. (Donald Teplyske)
4. Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper — Fired Up (Rounder Records) The bluegrass fiddle player of the decade comes through with another masterpiece. Read Donald Teplyske’s review here.
5. Alison Krauss & Union Station — Paper Airplane (Rounder Records) As usual, the latest AKUS is perfect, but not all bluegrass, which is the only reason it’s not higher on this list. Read AKH’s review here.
6. John Reischman & the Jaybirds — Vintage & Unique (Corvus) Over the past decade, John Reischman & the Jaybirds have become increasing popular in western North America. They are a great bluegrass band, always adding new material to their repertoire. Still, when exceptional mandolin players are mentioned, John Reischman’s name is often forgotten. On Vintage and Unique, the quintet takes Bill Monroe’s “The First Whippoorwill” for a spin and refreshes “Shady Grove” and “Last Chance.” Trisha Gagnon and Jim Nunally’s voices—which always sound wonderful together—are especially beautiful throughout this recording. The band delivers new songs alongside their reimagining of classic and long-forgotten tunes. “The Cypress Hills” and “Consider Me Gone” are just waiting to be discovered, while “Cold Mountain (Cam Saan)” examines the Canadian railway experience of Chinese labourers. Every track, each break and harmonic moment are highlights within a flawless album. (Donald Teplyske)
7. Larry Sparks — Almost Home (Rounder Records) An album of blue mountain memories: sons returning home, family history, faith, country roads, lonesomeness, country stars, Sunday dinners with nanner puddin’, and Momma’s apron strings. Larry Sparks’ voice continues to be pure and strong and the instrumental accompaniment he receives on this disc—largely from his touring band—is second to none. There remains a naturalness about the way Sparks approaches his music that is incredibly appealing. (Donald Teplyske). Read Larry Stephens’ review here.
8. Noam Pikelny – Beat the Devil and Carry a Rail (Compass Records) Chris Thile’s banjo colleague steps into the spotlight. Read Donald Teplyske’s review here.
9. Sierra Hull — Daybreak (Rounder Records) Another strong effort from on of bluegrass music’s most promising young virtuosos. Read Donald Teplyske’s review here.
10. James Reams & The Barnstormers — One Foot in the Honky Tonk (Mountain Redbird Music) A wonderful bluegrass album that is just waiting for more of us to discover. As he has consistently done, within this new volume James Reams’ life experiences and those of his ancestors permeate the songs—whether he wrote them or not—not lending them authenticity but ensuring they are authentic. When listening to James Reams, one is on a bridge connecting the present to the past, where the waters below blend the relationships and lamentations of today with those who birthed and shaped them. There are few bluegrass singers who match the lithe and masculine timbre Reams brings to the songs he is called to perform. With One Foot in the Honky Tonk, James Reams further defines his bluegrass, blending the varied elements of the roadhouse with sounds from the hills of Kentucky and her neighbors. One foot in the honky tonk indeed, but the rest of the Barnstormers’ bodies and their souls are deep in the bluegrass performing songs from Kevin Welch and Mike Henderson, Chris Gaffney, Fred Eaglesmith, Stonewall Jackson and Harlan Howard—folks who know honky-tonks, to be sure—as well as original and traditional tunes. (Donald Teplyske.) Read Larry Stephens’ review here.