Doug DeLoach selects ten bluegrass and newgrass albums that offer both an illuminative historical and contemporary perspective on America’s signature roots music
Elephant Revival – These Changing Skies (Itz Evolving, 2013)
Echoing the way American folkies in the 60s gravitated toward the jazz-inflected sound of English import Pentangle, progressive bluegrass fans have embraced Elephant Revival, a Colorado-based string quintet that mixes folk, jazz, country, Celtic, even rock and reggae elements in its performance. A Top of the World in #99.
Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs & The Foggy Mountain Boys – Foggy Mountain Banjo (Columbia, 1961)
Both members of the seminal Bluegrass Boys led by Bill Monroe, three-finger banjo picker Earl Scruggs and guitarist Lester Flatt were pioneers of bluegrass in their own right. Without their performances of ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown’ and the theme from The Beverly Hillbillies TV show, the evolutionary path of bluegrass, as well as the emergence of newgrass, are up for grabs.
Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn – Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn (Rounder, 2014)
Fleck necessarily belongs on almost any essential bluegrass list. This duet album with his wife represents a fresh assessment of the banjo’s amazing flexibility and range, offers up new perspectives on familiar songs such as ‘(I’ve Been Working on the) Railroad’ and ‘Pretty Polly’, and contributes worthy additions to the repertoire, such as Washburn’s ‘Shotgun Blues’. A Top of the World in #105.
David Grisman Quintet – 25th Year Reunion Concert (Acoustic Disc, 2011)
There is arguably no more important progenitor of progressive bluegrass than mandolinist David Grisman. The creator of ‘dawg’ music, which combines Django-esque jazz with American folk and bluegrass elements, Grisman is perhaps best known these days for collaborating with Jerry Garcia. The original DGQ members reunited to play a concert that now marks the apotheosis of a movement.
Sarah Jarosz – Build Me Up from Bones (Sugar Hill, 2011)
Jarosz’ deep talent as an instrumentalist, singer and songwriter is on full display here, superbly augmented by regular trio mates Alex Hargreaves (violin) and Nathaniel Smith (cello), plus a host of like-minded souls including Chris Thile, Jerry Douglas and Aoife O’Donovan. Reviewed in #98.
Alison Krauss & Union Station – Paper Airplane (Rounder, 2011)
Paper Airplane incorporates all of the qualities that have made Alison Krauss & Union Station the poster band for the 21st-century bluegrass revival. The album showcases Krauss with her all-star cadre – Jerry Douglas (dobro, lap steel, vocals), Dan Tyminski (guitar, mandolin, lead vocal), and Ron Block (banjo, guitar) – in a style predominantly reminiscent of earlier, rootsier performances, yet still retaining the band’s penchant for experimentation. A Top of the World in #76.
Bill Monroe – Music of Bill Monroe from 1936-1994 (MCA, 1994)
To fully appreciate contemporary bluegrass, you have to dig into the ancestral foundations of the category, which means listening first and foremost to Bill Monroe. This 4-CD set is the best bet for beginners, covering Monroe’s pre-Bluegrass Boys duets with brother Charlie through the mandolinist’s final recording session in 1994.
Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues (Nonesuch, 2014)
Punch Brothers’ music draws on a multitude of sources ranging from traditional bluegrass, jazz and swing to folk, alt-rock and classical. This album is simultaneously bound by a theme – the plague of perpetual digital connectivity – and punctuated by distinctive compositions that form an impressionistic, almost surreal, soundscape. A Top of the World in #106.
Peter Rowan – The Old School (Compass, 2013)
A living link to the band that started the whole shebang, 73-year-old mandolinist and singer-songwriter Rowan is still contributing to the cause six decades after joining the Bluegrass Boys. Recorded ‘live to tape,’ The Old School serves as a foot-stomping testament to the enduring legacy of the genre. A Top of the World in #95.