New groups, veterans, country singers coming home and acts in their prime all turned out some of the best bluegrass of 2010.
Here are my picks for the Ten Best Bluegrass Albums of 2010:
10. THE BOXCARS, “The Boxcars,” Mountain Home Records. 13 tracks.
The Boxcars are a new group with a veteran lineup.
When they call them a supergroup, they’re not kidding.
Just look at their credentials.
Adam Steffey and John Bowman once played with Alison Krauss & Union Station.
Ron Stewart, Harold Nixon and Bowman are graduates of J.D. Crowe & The New South.
Keith Garrett and Nixon were members of Blue Moon Rising.
And Steffey and Stewart were in The Dan Tyminski Band.
The band’s sound leans toward the country side of bluegrass — a reminder that there was a time when bluegrass was part of country music
9. BALSAM RANGE, “Trains I Missed,” Mountain Home Music. 12 tracks
Balsam Range melds country, gospel, bluegrass and old English ballads into a sound that is both traditional and contemporary.
Having four lead singers — and two writers on this project — shows the band’s depth.
And “Trains I Missed” shows why bluegrass fans should pay attention to Balsam Range.
8. RANDY KOHRS, “Quicksand,” Rural Rhythm. 13 tracks.
Randy Kohrs’ resophonic guitar has appeared on more than 500 CDs, but he’s a lot more than a sideman.
He’s also a first-class singer-songwriter. He co-wrote five of the songs on this album.
“Quicksand” is classified as an acoustic album, rather than bluegrass, because it pushes boundaries.
And it pushes them in an exciting way.
7. CHRIS HILLMAN AND HERB PEDERSEN, “At Edwards Barn,” Rounder. 15 tracks.
Most musicians can only dream of careers like Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen have had.
Hillman, 65, who got his start in the California-based Scottsville Squirrel Barkers as a teenager, went on to make music history with The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas and The Desert Rose Band.
Pedersen, 66, played in the Pine Valley Ramblers, the Dillards, The Desert Rose Band and the Laurel Canyon Ramblers, contributed music to several TV shows and movies, and performed on a number of albums by other artists.
The 15 songs on the album are really a career retrospective done bluegrass style.
6. THE STEELDRIVERS, “Reckless,” Rounder Records. 12 tracks.
The SteelDrivers roared out of Nashville in 2008 with a sound that’s best described as “outlaw grass.”
The band had a sound that ranged from high-lonesome to low-down blues — often in the same song.
They mixed a rock attitude with some Delta blues, gospel and country, but kept it all within the framework of bluegrass.
High tenor vocals were replaced with Chris Stapleton’s rough-hewn growls and wails.
But it’s the last album with the original lineup.
And that’s a reason for fans to check it out.
5. THE GRASCALS, “The Famous Lefty Flynn’s,” Rounder. 12 tracks.
The Grascals burst on the bluegrass scene in 2005 with a self-titled album featuring Dolly Parton on a grassed-up version of Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas.”
It made a splash, earning the band “emerging artist of the year” honors from the International Bluegrass Music Association and a Grammy nomination.
The Grascals went on to win entertainer of the year honors from the IBMA in both 2006 and 2007. And they picked up another Grammy nomination for 2006’s “Long List of Heartaches.”
A resume like that leaves a band room to coast for a few years.
But The Grascals are still taking chances, trying new things while sticking to the sound that brought them fans and honors.
“Lefty Flynn’s” is a bluegrass album with a country edge. It features steel guitars on three tracks, drums, a mandola and a viola — instruments not typically found on bluegrass albums.
4. JOSH WILLIAMS, “Down Home,” Pinecastle. 12 tracks.
Back in 1993, Pete “Dr. Banjo” Wernick put together a band he called the Bluegrass Youth All-Stars to perform at the International Bluegrass Music Association awards show at the RiverPark Center in Owensboro, Ky.
The band — which would make a great supergroup today — consisted of Michael Cleveland on fiddle, Josh Williams on banjo, Chris Thile on mandolin, Cody Kilby on guitar and Brady Stogdill on bass.
Williams went on to work in the Special Consensus and Rhonda Vincent’s band, The Rage.
Now, he’s on his own with his first solo album since “Lonesome Highway,” which made several “best of” lists back in 2004.
His tenor/baritone vocals rank him among the top male singers in the genre as well. He really shines on lonesome ballads.
3. DON RIGSBY & MIDNIGHT CALL, “The Voice of God,” Rebel. 14 tracks.
Too many bluegrass gospel albums fail to challenge listeners.
They stick with the tried and true songs and sounds.
But Rigsby presents story songs that make you think about the message.
The album’s highlight is “Harmonica” Phil Wiggins’ “Forgiveness,” a powerful blending of bluegrass and blues in a duet with blues singer and slide guitarist Rory Block on a song about cocaine, whiskey and salvation.
At 42, Rigsby is just coming into his own as a solo artist.
2. DAILEY & VINCENT, “Dailey & Vincent Sing The Statler Brothers,” Rounder/Cracker Barrel. 12 tracks
The Statler Brothers hit the road with Johnny Cash in 1964 and racked up 33 Top 10 country singles before their retirement in 2002.
In January 1966, their “Flowers on the Wall,” climbed to No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100 (pop) charts.
The Statlers have been retired for eight years.
But Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent — the hottest act in bluegrass music as the second decade of the 21st century begins — are counted among their rabid fans and saluted them with this outstanding collection of Statler Brothers songs available in Cracker Barrel stores.
1, JOE DIFFIE, “Homecoming: The Bluegrass Album,” Rounder. 12 tracks.
The only thing you can say about an album like this is: Wow, what took so long?
This is the album Joe Diffie was born to make. His voice isn’t high, but voices don’t come more lonesome than his.
“Homecoming” — a title that refers to his return to bluegrass where he started his career with the Oklahoma-based The Special Edition — is finally the album that bluegrass fans have waited years for.
And it’s definitely worth the wait.