Folk Alley’s Best of 2015 – Barb Heller’s Top Bluegrass Albums of the Year

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Barb Heller’s Top Bluegrass Albums of the Year

In between shifts at Folk Alley, I’m a bluegrass radio host for North Country Public Radio in northern New York. I live a few miles from the mighty St. Lawrence River that divides the US and Canada. You might think it strange that I’d be such a bluegrass fan, living in the Big Cheese State of NY, but we’re rich in many kinds of music here.

My “favorites” list this year is in no particular order, and I’m particularly fond of performers who bend their chosen genre a bit. You’ll find a lot of bend in this year’s list of favorites. Enjoy – and Happy Holidays! – Barb


The Steeldrivers, ‘The Muscle Shoals Recordings’ (Rounder)
I rarely listen to albums over and over. This one’s different – I’ve been playing it for weeks now, over and over. The songwriting is so vivid that it gets more real every time I hear it. Gary Nichols’ lead singing just takes me away. I’m a northerner, but I feel the south in every cut on this great album. Two words: Get it. iTunes * Amazon.com

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Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley, ‘Before The Sun Goes Down’ (Compass Records)
I first met Trey Hensley a few years ago, when he performed at a festival near my home. I’ve known about Rob Ickes for years – 15-time IBMA dobro player of the year, and Blue Highway band member for 20+ years. Trey Hensley is one of the slickest bluegrass guitarists I’ve ever seen – and he’s doubly blessed with a deep, classic country voice. Together, they’re a force to be reckoned with. They produce a sound that’s so much bigger than just two. The songs are beautifully rendered – with a slant toward the country genre. These guys could shred these songs with their instruments…. but they don’t. They know just when to stop. iTunes * Amazon.com

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The Hillbenders, ‘Tommy – A Bluegrass Opry’ (Compass Records)
As the name implies, this IS a remake of the classic WHO rock opera. Wow! I’ve seen this show live a couple of times, and it just gets better and better. If you liked the original, you’ll love this album, and you should treat yourself to a Hillbenders show, complete with stage dancing and lighting. iTunes * Amazon.com

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Bumper Jacksons, ‘Too Big World’ (Bumper Jacksons)
Sometimes I write notes on the cd jackets as they come in. This one has one word on the front: FUN! This DC-area group has taken a pretty wide variety of songs and turned each one into a little sideshow. Even the serious medicine goes down easy with this band. You’ll be shuffling your feet before you realize you’re dancing to a gospel song. It’s…. fun. iTunes * Amazon.com


Sam Gleaves, ‘Ain’t We Brothers’ (Community Music)
Gleaves is an openly gay musician from Appalachia… who sings about a gay miner from Appalachia. Hats off to this young man for boldly going where bluegrass has feared to tread. With a groundswell of support behind this album (produced by Cathy Fink, with guest appearances by Tim O’Brien, Laurie Lewis and Janis Ian), you’re sure to hear more about Sam Gleaves in coming years. His choice of songs is as sweet as his gentle voice. Get in on this one. iTunes * Amazon.com

Here are a few more albums that have turned my head this year:

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Ronnie Reno, ‘Lessons Learned’ (Rural Rhythm) The Reno name has been a household word in bluegrass circles for decades. Ronnie Reno grew up in the shadow of Reno & Smiley, his dad’s band. Ronnie grew up to be a songwriter, performer, radio and TV host, and opening act for some of the biggest names in country music. He’s written most of the songs on his latest album, and he’s clearly learned his lessons well. Great playing, singing, and excellent content and production quality on this album. iTunes * Amazon.com

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The Cox Family, ‘Gone Like The Cotton’ (Rounder)
Recorded in 1998, and just released in October of 2015, this collection – produced by Alison Krauss – is just as good as the first Cox Family album. Velvety, melt-in-your-mouth vocals, great instrumental arrangements, and a wide range of songs bring out all the great things this band has to offer. The album also features some big name studio guests (Sam Bush, Barry Bales, Alison Krauss, Ron Block, Andrea Zonn, to name a few). If you like the sound of Alison Krauss, you’ll love this one, too. iTunes * Amazon.com

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Norman Blake, ‘Wood, Wire & Words’ (Western Jubilee Recording Company/Plectraphone Records)
Still making great music in his 70’s, Norman Blake is a living classic. Good stories, good picking, and an honest, straight-ahead great set of music. If you’ve heard anything by Norman Blake over the last 40 years, you know he’s a great historian, guitarist, and songwriter. He sets the bar high. iTunes * Amazon.com


Sideline, ‘Session 2’ (Mountain Fever Records)
If bluegrass music was a buffet, Sideline would be the meat & potatoes. These guys all have other bands that they tour with, but they put this project together in their spare time. The result is down-home, dead-on great playing. If you’re a traditionalist, put this one on your must-have list. iTunes * Amazon.com

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… and, last but not least, an upcoming release that I haven’t actually heard yet. I just LOVE the concept: 2016 Banjo Babes Calendar and CD set.
I met one of the original Banjo Babes this year at a music festival, and that’s the first I’d heard of this project. I got the 2015 edition. The music is OK; a compilation of tracks in various genres by 12 women who all happen to play banjo – but the concept is priceless! The 2016 calendar/cd combo is a must-have for the banjo lover in your life. Every mechanic needs one of these in the shop, too. Available – HERE.

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