I’m relatively new to bluegrass. The first bluegrass album I listened to was the classic Will The Circle Be Unbroken album that I got from my dad’s houseboat during the first days of fall in 2009. I had been to a bluegrass festival, I’m pretty sure, when I was just a kid — 4, 5, or 6 — but that was about the extent of my familiarity with it, that and hearing my neighbor play his violin when my new wife and I had first moved into our house in the summer of 2008. We heard beautiful music diagonally across the road, and felt glad and secure that we already had a special neighbor. His name is Perry and he’s a great musician, neighbor, and friend. He recommended one of the albums on this list. Without further ado . . .
1. Pickin’ in the Wind — Mark O’Connor
This is the album my friend Perry recommended I get during one of our first conversations about bluegrass. I’m glad I took his advice. Not only am I proud of having such a seminal and highly regarded album in my collection, I enjoy listening to it, which is what it’s all about. O’Connor is not just a master at fiddle, he’s also highly regarded as a virtuoso on mandolin and guitar.
Pickin’ in the Wind
Not only do you get the 1975 Grand Master Fiddle Champion, you get some big names that you may recognize on the front of the cover. Tammy’s Waltz and Mark’s Waltz are particularly nice, although there are no dull songs. Pickin’ in the Wind and Tom and Jerry are excellent uptempo jams. This album is definitely worth listening to throughout.
2. Will the Circle be Unbroken — The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
This album (and the Appalachia Journey album with Mark O’Connor, Edgar Meyer, and Yo-Yo Ma) began my enjoyment of, and interest in, bluegrass. It’s where I found out about Doc Watson, Mother Maybelle Carter, and Uncle Dave Macon, to name a few. There are giants of bluegrass & country playing many well-known standards. The dialogue between a few of the songs is enjoyable and educational. Grand Ole Opry Song is an example of that, which leads off this 3-LP classic released in 1972 on the United Artists label. Jimmy Martin plays guitar and sings a tribute to some great pioneers of country music and the Grand Ole Opry.
There is a nice array of instrumentation on this album, including the fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass, dobro, harp, auto harp, and even a washboard from time to time. Some of the exceptional tracks, in order as they appear on the vinyl album (I believe the order is different on CD): Nashville Blues, Tennessee Stud, Black Mountain Rag, All of Side 4 (which are all instrumentals), Way Downtown, I Am a Pilgrim, Soldier’s Joy, and the beautiful Both Sides Now, a guitar number written by Joni Mitchell and played by Randy Scruggs.
3. Mother Maybelle Carter — Mother Maybelle Carter
Maybelle Carter comes from country music royalty, part of the Original Carter Family along with her sister and brother-in-law, who began recording in the late 20’s. Her music’s impact has been felt across several genres: bluegrass, country, folk, and rock. Originally released sometime in the 50‘s, this album is from the Columbia label released in 1973. One of the great things about this is the dialogue among her and the other musicians between songs.
Black Mountain Rag
The production of this is informal and you can feel a little more like you’re there with them as they’re playing. As a Tennessee Volunteer, it’s worth noting to other Vols that Rocky Top and Tennessee Waltz are on here, as well as some standards like Wabash Cannonball, Good Old Mountain Dew, Wildwood Flower, and Black Mountain Rag.
4. Bluegrass Instrumentals — Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys
Bill Monroe is considered one of the greatest pioneers of bluegrass music. The longest running bluegrass music festival is held in his honor in Bean Blossom, Indiana. This album, released on MCA in 1965, is, as the title indicates, strictly instrumental. Each track is uptempo and, along with Monroe’s mandolin, you’ll hear guitar, banjo, and fiddles. The last two tracks are great dance numbers, especially Monroe’s Hornpipe.
5. Good Deal! Doc Watson in Nashville — Doc Watson
I love this guy — his spirit and music make me cry and rejoice. Doc Watson is probably my favorite bluegrass musician, although many learned bluegrass folk would hesitate to classify him as bluegrass. This album, released in 1968 on the Vanguard label, has all the instrumentation of bluegrass (6 & 12-string guitar, dobro, banjo, fiddles, bass) with the addition of drums. Out of the few albums of his I’ve heard, this one’s my favorite because it has The Train That Carried My Girl From Town. It also has the classic Shady Grove, as well as a great version of Memphis Blues and June Apple.
The Train That Carried My Girl From Town
Each song on here is as comforting as your favorite pair of slippers. Speaking of slippers, Doc Watson is a warm pair of slippers on a cold Sunday morning, a nice warm fire on a snowy day, or a warm glass of whiskey on a January evening. If it’s summer, he’s the condensation on your iced tea or mint julep. He’s that good, a metaphor and a symbol of everything great about the South.
6. The Wind That Shakes the Barley — John McCutcheon
If you’re a fan of bluegrass, folk, Appalachia, or just beautiful music, this album is for you. The first song is a medley including St. Anne’s Reel, followed by a Bach classic — Jesus, Joy of Man’s Desiring. The vocal standard written by Carter Stanley, Who Will Sing For Me, is next. Dallas Rag is a short fun number with the guitar and fiddle. Then comes a beautiful medley as old as the hills (of Ireland) — Planxty George Brabazon, Si Bheag Si Mhor. This is definitely worthy of playing at weddings when the bride is revealed. Here’s a link to a seemingly trustworthy and well-informed source as to the meaning and origin of the first song in this two-tune medley: http://www.ibiblio.org/fiddlers/PLANXTY_PLYM.htm. The second half, Si Bheag Si Mhor, is a traditional Irish waltz, at least according to this trusted link: http://thesession.org/tunes/449.
Planxty George Brabazon
I’ve taken up too much of your time, so I will let you briefly know that the last track on the first side is a 4-song medley known as Carter Store Medley: Wildwood Flower, Red Wing, Wake up Susan, Temperance Reel, and that the second side is excellent and also full of reels and other songs strung together into more medleys. I especially like the 3rd track (Wind that Shakes the Barley, Morpeth’s Rant, Staten Island), 6th track (Hangman’s Reel, Campbell’s Farewell to Red Gap), and last track (Sally in the Garden, Wild Rose of the Mountain). Lastly, this was released in 1977 on the June Appal label, and is easily available in various formats, including vinyl, which you can pick up rather inexpensively (at least the last time I checked).
7. Mondo Mando — David Grisman
Released in 1981 on the Warner Brothers label, this upbeat instrumental album is considered ‘newgrass’ by some and features the mandolin with other stringed instruments including the guitar, bass, fiddle, mandola, and violectra. It’s a good and interesting album to listen to straight through, but it doesn’t offer up the same variety as some of the other albums on here.
For the most part, the tempos on each song are about the same, although Anouman, the last song on Side 1, is slower than the rest. Mark O’Connor and Tony Rice make appearances on a couple songs, Fanny Hill being one where both are playing. The cover art is also interesting and unique, which adds to the fun of having this.
8. Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys Play Requests — Ralph Stanley
This is a great album by a major contributing musician to bluegrass. He is probably more known as part of the Stanley Brothers duo, with his brother Carter, who passed away in 1966. Whether with his brother or not, he had the Clinch Mountain Boys to play along with him and his vocals and banjo. Released on the Rebel label in 1972, this album contains some great songs, including the great I’m a Man of Constant Sorrow, which became more popular when it appeared on the soundtrack of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Maple on the Hill
Most of the songs on here are vocals, with Side 1 containing more uptempo songs than Side 2. The only instrumentals are Clinch Mountain Backstep and Lisa’s Joy, the 5th track on each side, respectively. Five of the songs on here are written by Ralph Stanley, including the popular classics Pretty Polly and Little Maggie. Another one is Maple on the Hill, which I really like. Other instruments include the guitar, bass, fiddle, and mandolin, in which Ricky Skaggs plays the latter two.
9. Cross Country Banjo — Curtis McPeake and the Nashville Pickers
This 2-LP album by Curtis McPeake and the Nashville Pickers, released in 1976 and recorded directly northeast of Nashville in Madison, Tennessee, is strictly instrumental, and a great one to have in your bluegrass collection. It features the banjo on every song, so it’s definitely a go-to when you and your friends are feelin’ the twangy vibe. It also has guitar, dobro, fiddle, bass, and drums, so there’s some good variety.
Sally Goodin medley (had a hard time finding anything exactly matching this album)
There are a ton of familiar songs on here (many as part of medleys), including Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Cryin’ Holy Unto the Lord, John Hardy, Worried Man Blues, Goodbye Liza Jane, Dear Ole Dixie (all on Side 1 of 4), John Henry, the medley of Cripple Creek, Sally Goodin’, Under the Double Eagle, and Sail Away Lady (Side 2), Earl’s Breakdown, Maple on the Hill, I’ll Fly Away, Ballad of Jed Clampett (Side 3), Flint Hill Special, Nine Pound Hammer, Gatherin’ Flowers from the Hillside, and Lonesome Road Blues (Side 4). McPeake is a great musician who has played significantly with bluegrass legends Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and with The Grand Ole Opry.
10. Paper Airplane — Alison Krauss & Union Station
With the little authority I have to say this, I would consider Alison Krauss & Union Station both bluegrass and country, and a good bridge between the two. Not only does Krauss have a beautiful voice, she is also accomplished as a fiddler. Joining her is Union Station with lead vocals (Dust Bowl Children, On the Outside Looking In, and Bonita and Bill Butler), harmony vocals, acoustic bass and guitar, banjo, mandolin, dobro, and lap steel. The entire album has a melancholy feel and is good throughout, especially the eight tracks with Kraus on lead vocals.
Dimming of the Day