I recently wrote an article for Paste Magazine about how certain bluegrass songs (and artists) were actually pretty punk. It was meant to be a little controversial and not too serious, but it was also meant to put out another narrative to bluegrass that it turns out a lot of people are looking for. It's the narrative that bluegrass used to be the working man (and woman)'s cry, a voice out of the mountains of Appalachia demanding respect and attention. There's a real divide in bluegrass now between the over-polished Nashville bluegrass template, and the rough-and-tumble bluegrass that pays deep homage to its origins without gussying them up. So here are Three Raw Bluegrass Albums that I've been listening to!
Town Mountain. Southern Crescent.
This year I had the good fortune to get to interview Town Mountain onstage at the Pickathon Festival outside Portland, Oregon. Lead singer Robert Greer answered most of my questions very directly and didn't beat around the bush. He's got opinions about bluegrass today and doesn't mind sharing them. But more importantly, he's guiding Town Mountain down the bluegrass straight and narrow, avoiding the pitfalls of over-production and polish, and keeping true to that fine line that bluegrass can ride between mountain folk and raw-ass country. Their new album, Southern Crescent, touches on this credo for the band. It opens with sawin' old-time fiddle, but by the time it hits the third track, "Comin' Back to You," it hits a honky-tonk vein, complete with barrelhouse piano, that might surprise you. It's like if Jerry Lee Lewis had a string band kickin' ass as much as his piano playing. Still, this is band that's not afraid of wearing its love for bluegrass on its sleeve. Late night, at the end of my time with the Leadership Bluegrass program in Nashville, I got in a long conversation with Town Mountain bassist Adam Chaffins about the power of that old bluegrass, and the band as a whole almost has a chip on their shoulder about their love for the bluegrass old school. Adding to the raw, live feel of the new album is the production from Dirk Powell, one of my favorite old-time musicians. He had the good sense to get them all in the same room and let 'em rip.
Michael Cleveland. Fiddler's Dream.
2016. Compass Records.
It should come as no surprise that bluegrass fiddle legend Michael Cleveland's new album is already an instant classic. He's widely considered to be the best fiddler in bluegrass and has guested with a huge cast of stars in addition to leading his own very successful band. But what's lovely here is how much fun he's clearly having just playing the hell out of these tunes. He kicks off with the album's title, "Fiddler's Dream," a showpiece from the great Tennessee fiddler Arthur Smith, a famed early fiddler who played with the Delmore Brothers. He blazes like greased lightning through this tune, pulling down some pretty sweet pyrotechnics on the fiddle. The rest of the album is given over to tunes of his own composition, with a lovely John Hartford song tossed in (courtesy of Sam Bush), plus a duet with Andy Statman at the end. The guest list is prodigious of course, featuring Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Vince Gill, Barry Bales (Alison Krauss), Paul Franklin (Time Jumpers), and Jeff White on guitar with Lloyd Douglas on banjo. A duet with fiddler Jason Carter, "Henryville," is a special delight and a second duet between the two on Bill Monroe's "Tall Timber" is so fast it's hard to believe. Cleveland's a 10 time IBMA fiddle player of the year and has probably shelves full of awards, but all that really matters here is how much fun he seems to be having with this music. With Fiddler's Dream, he's setting an inspirational template for the next generation of fiddlers to follow.
The Po' Ramblin' Boys. Back to the Mountains.
2016. Randm Records.
There's something about the raw-timber burr of a mountain accent. It might be the fact that I'm a West Coast boy born and raised, and wasn't raised on bluegrass. But I don't think so. I think that there's a raw strain of living in the best Appalachian music today, something that ran through the duets of the Louvin Brothers as easily as a new band like The Po' Ramblin' Boys. And what a fine band this is! Everyone here are monster pickers, absolutely no holds barred when it comes to instrumental solos. Of special note, Jereme Brown is an absolute monster on the banjo. He's got that crystalline twang on his instrument, as it marries careful precision and hyper-aggressive speed. This is a band that gets it. A band that sees George Jones as much a pioneer of bluegrass as Carter Stanley. Their new album, Back to the Mountains, is out now on Randm Records, an interesting California record label that specializes in traditional bluegrass, indie roots, and new-wave bluegrass. The songs on Back to the Mountains are drawn from old sources or newly penned originals from the band, and it's pretty fun to go back and trace the origin of some of the covers they're doing here. As mandolin player C.J. Lewandowski explains, "“A tree can’t stand without its roots. So we are just trying to keep those roots alive. We want to complement and not take away.” Listen to their voices rise in that soaring bluegrass harmony, and you'll hear the real sound of bluegrass the way it first came to be. This kind of bluegrass will fill up your heart.