Best of 2023 – Bluegrass/Country/Americana
It should be obvious to anyone reading my blog posts that my music tastes are wildly eclectic. There are so many genres of music that I have enjoyed exploring! Bluegrass has held a very special place in my musical life. Back in the ‘90s when I was first discovering Big Monroe’s high lonesome sound, my brother Darrel started playing banjo. Soon family visits would always include living room jams. Then in ’02, I moved to Grass Valley, the home of one of the best bluegrass festivals in the country. Eventually, my daughter Mei Lin would catch the bluegrass bug in a big way and would became a fine bluegrass fiddler! I ended up playing in a bluegrass band with her for 2 years. A real highlight of 2023 for me, was the release of my daughter’s band Broken Compass Bluegrass’ debut album Fools’ Gold.
So this year, in my “Best of 23” blogpost, I thought I would highlight my favorite bluegrass, country, and Americana albums from the past year of releases.
In alphabetical order –
Broken Compass Bluegrass – Fool’s Gold – For obvious reasons, this was my “tip top” favorite album of the year. My daughter Mei Lin co-founded Broken Compass Bluegrass in 2021. Fool’s Gold is their first studio album. It was self produced and recorded at the various home studios of band members. They did such a beautiful job on this record! It features fine songwriting from Mei Lin, Kyle Ledson & Django Ruckrich. A real highlight of the album for me is Mei Lin’s empathy-infused song “Take a Look Around”. I could not be more proud of these kids!
Rodney Crowell – The Chicago Sessions – Rodney Crowell is one of the finest songwriters in country music. Since the mid ‘70s, his songs have been recorded by Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Margo Price and many other great artists. The Chicago Sessions was produced by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. This is a fine collection of songs with soulful performances and simple direct production.
Nick Dumas – Details – Mandolin player/singer/songwriter Nick Dumas grew up playing bluegrass with members of his family. He later joined the legendary band “Special Consensus” and played with them for a few years in the ’10’s. In my opinion, he is a greatly underrated mandolin player with a tone that’s smooth like butter! Details is his second solo album. It is filled with great tunes and has such a wonderful vibe throughout!
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Weathervanes – Jason Isabell is one of the finest storyteller/songwriter’s of our time. His new album Weathervanes is modern country rock classic, full of tunes featuring stories of misguided life lessons, desperation and beauty. Every song on this collection really shines!
Jim Lauderdale & The Po Ramblin’ Boys – The Long and Lonesome Letting Go – When it comes to hard core, rootsy, “balls to the walls” bluegrass, The Po Ramblin’ Boys are just about the best there is! Jim Lauderdale is such a great songwriter and has been making many great records since the mid ‘70s. On this collaborative album, Jim co-wrote all 12 songs with some of the best songwriters in the business including Joe Newberry, Logan Ledger, Becky Buller, Jon Weisberger, and others, to create a set of wonderful songs which dig deeply into many shades of “lonesome”!
Logan Ledger – Golden State – In my opinion, Nashville singer/songwriter Logan Ledger is one of the most underrated musical artists of our time. Although you can easily hear hear his influences: Elvis, Roy Orbison, and George Jones to name a few, he has a vocal style which is completely his own! His first album, 2020’s Logan Ledger featured the smokey/hazy production of T Bone Burnett. Golden State was produced by Waylon Jenning’s son Shooter. It has the more direct sound reminiscent of ’70’s classic country albums. The title song, “Golden State” and the album’s finale “Where Will I Go” are two of my favorite songs of the year.
Mighty Poplar – Mighty Poplar – Q: What happens when a bunch of the hottest players in progressive bluegrass/jamgrass get together to make a rootsy, straight-up bluegrass/old timey album? A: Mighty Poplar! Chris Eldridge (Punch Brothers), Noamy Pikelny (Punch Brothers), Alex Hargraves (Billy Strings Band), Andrew Marlin (Watchouse) & Greg Garrison (Leftover Salmon) have created an album which features their own unique takes on traditional fiddle tunes and Carter Family tunes, as well as songs from Bob Dylan, John Hartford and others. I got to see them perform live this year and was completely blown away! I hope Mighty Poplar continue to make music together through the years!
Willie Nelson – Bluegrass – Willie Nelson has had a career like no other. He has been writing hit songs since the ’50’s and has consistently been putting out solo albums at a prolific rate throughout his entire career. Finally, in 2023, Wille has recorded a bluegrass album! For this project, he has brought in some of the best players in the business including Ron Block (banjo), Dan Tyminski (mandolin), Rob Ickes (Dobro) and many others. On this record, he has re-recorded many of his classic songs with this “kick ass” bluegrass band and his voice sound so great! What’s not to love?!
Nickel Creek – Celebrants – This album almost doesn’t belong in the “spotlight” category of my list. Nickel Creek’s new album is practically a modern “art rock” concept album played on acoustic instruments. The band have their origin and roots deeply connected to bluegrass and other string band traditions, so I decided I could count this record loosely in the “Americana” category. Simply put, Celebrants is completely ambitious, stunning, and unlike anything else the band has ever done! It’s not an album to be listened to in bits and pieces – song by song. Like Dark Side of the Moon it is meant to be listened to in whole as a single work.
Larry Sparks – It’s Just Me – Larry Sparks got his start playing and singing with bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley, shortly after the death of Ralph’s brother Carter. As such, Larry has a deep and direct connection to the very roots of bluegrass. His voice has only become more soulful and expressive with age. His 2023 album It’s Just Me is a first for him, just Larry and his guitar with no other accompaniment. Every note he sings on this record is completely true and authentic. I especially love his performance of Daniel Crabtree’s “Scarlet Red Lines” which won gospel song of the year at this year’s IBMA.
Billy Strings – Meet Me at the Creek/Pyramid Country/Must Be Seven/Meet Me at the Creek – Billy Strings has done more than anybody in recent history to progress bluegrass into new realms, and to create a whole new and greatly expanded audience for the genre. Thanks to Billy, bluegrass is “cool“ again, and people are attending bluegrass festivals at all time record rates! Although his studio albums are all stellar, none of his albums have completely represented what he and his band are capable of. A Billy Strings concert is such an exhilarating experience ( I just attended my first one this year!), and the level of group improvisation his band exhibits, rivals, and in some ways mirrors what the Grateful Dead would do on nights when they were really “on”. I would even argue that Billy and his band are more consistently great in terms of group improv than the Dead were in their heyday. His new live album is a single 38 minute track where he weaves 4 of his classic songs together into a brilliant medley of sorts. It’s quite astonishing!
Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway – City of Gold – It has been so amazing to witness the artistic growth and development of guitarist/singer/songwriter Molly Tuttle through the years! She grew up playing in the “Kids on Bluegrass” program at the California Bluegrass Father’s Day Festival in Grass Valley where I live, and I can remember watching her perform since she was a little kid. City of Gold is her second album released under the name “Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway”, but in reality, this is the first album to extensively feature her current stellar band. I especially love her duet with Dave Matthews “Yosemite” and her beautiful song about the development of secure self-esteem “The First Time I Fell in Love”.
Cory Walker – School Project – Cory Walker is the banjo player of East Nash Grass and the brother of mandolinist Jarod Walker from The Billy Strings Band. . On School Project he is joined by top notch players including his East Nash bandmates Harry Clark (mandolin), Gaven Largent (dobro) as well as bluegrass legends Herb Peterson, Tim O’Brien, Rodney Dillard and many other great players. The album straddles the worlds of traditional and progressive bluegrass with grace. He is such an astounding and greatly underrated banjo player! I am SUCH a fan of “grassed up” Dylan covers, and this album features not one but two of these!
Bella White – Among Other Things – I was fist introduced to Canadian singer/songwriter Bella White back in 2020 when my daughter’s fiddle teacher/mentor Patrick M’Gonigle (formerly of The Lonely Heartstring Band) produced some recordings of her. These recordings eventually became her excellent first album Just Like Leaving. I loved her music immediately! Her second album “Among Other Things” was produced by one of my favorite producers Jonathan Wilson. Her voice and singing style are completely unique – completely her – quirky and completely soulful. Her songwriting is top notch!
Now here’s my complete list – In alphabetical order by artist
Derek Bailey & Paul Motian – Duo in Concert
Anton Barbeau – Morgenmusik/Nachtschlager
Boy Genius- The Rest
Broken Compass Bluegrass – Fool’s Gold
Mario Brunello – Bach Transcriptions
Clark – Sus Dog
Oliver Coates – Aftersun
Bruce Cockburn – O Sun O Moon
Complete Mountain Almanac – Complete Mountain Almanac
Rodney Crowell – The Chicago Sessions
Depeche Mode – Momento Mori
Nick Dumas – Details
Lawrence English & Lea Bertucci – Chthonic
Brian Eno – Five Light Paintings
Brian Eno – Top Boy
Feist – Multitudes
Fred Again.. & Brian Eno – Secret Life
Tomas Fujiwara – Pith
Peter Gabriel – I/O
Garbage – Witness to Your Love
GEORGE – Shorts
Devin Gray – Most Definitely
Laurel Halo – Atlas
Mette Henriette – Drifting
Joe Henry – All the Eye Can See
Illegal Crowns – Unclosing
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Weathervanes
Keith Jarrett – Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach
Jim & the Schrimps – Ain’t No Saint
Jim Lauderdale & The Po Ramblin’ Boys – The Long and Lonesome Letting Go
Logan Ledger – Golden State
Steve Lehman – Ex Machina
Russ Lossing – Alternate Side Parking Music
Joe Lovano – Our Daily Bread
L’Rain – I Killed Your Dog
Marta & Tricky – When Things Go Wrong
Al Menne – Freak Accident
Mighty Poplar – Mighty Poplar
Milk Carton Kids – I Only See the Moon
Allison Miller – Rivers in Our Veins
Blake Mills – Jelly Road
The National – First Two Pages of Frankenstein
Natural Information Society – Since Time is Gravity
Meshell Ndegeocello – The Omnichord Real Book
The Necks – Travel
Willie Nelson – Bluegrass
The New Pornographers – Continue as Guest
Nickel Creek – Celebrants
Jim O’Rourke – Hands That Bind
Paramore – This is Why
John Patitucci – Scenes from an Imaginary Film
Gift Rushambwa – 2022
Ryuichi Sakamoto – 12
Angelica Sanchez Nontet – Nighttime Creatures
Phillip Selway – Strange Dance
Sexmob – The Hard Way
Anoushka Shankar – Chapter 1: Forever, For Now
Ed Sheeran – – (minus)
Tyshawn Sorry – Continuing
Larry Sparks – It’s Just Me
Arabella Steinbacher – JS Bach & Part: Works for Violin & Chamber Orchestra
Andrew Stephens & Ben Goldberg- Downward Spiral
Sufjan Stevens – Reflections
Sufjan Stevens – Javelin
Billy Strings – Meet Me at the Creek/Pyramid Country/Must Be Seven/Meet Me at the Creek
Dudu Tassa & Jonny Greenwood – Jarak Qaribak
Henry Threadgill – The Other One
Tinariwen – Amatssou
Ralph Towner – At First Light
Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway – City of Gold
Cory Walker – School Project
Anna Webber & Matt Mitchell – Capacious Aeration
Bella White – Among Other Things
Wilco – Cousin