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The 10 best bluegrass albums of 2011

December 16th, 2011 2:36 pm by Keith Lawrence, Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer

2011 is almost ready for the history books. Here are my selections for the 10 best bluegrass albums of the year.

10. NEWFOUND ROAD, "Live At The Down Home," Rounder. 13 tracks.

When NewFound Road left southwestern Ohio on the bluegrass trail a decade ago, it was primarily a bluegrass gospel group.

But it wasn't long until the quartet was covering a full range of bluegrass material, from sacred to secular, traditional to contemporary.

"Live At The Down Home" was recorded live last December at The Down Home, a Johnson City, Tenn., restaurant/club. Most of the material comes from earlier albums.

The band does a good job of taking songs from other genres and turning them into strong bluegrass songs. And it's not bad when it comes to original material either.

9. BLUE HIGHWAY, "Sounds of Home," Rounder. 12 tracks

Sometimes when you read the lists of people named rookie of the year in any field, you find yourself wondering, "Whatever happened to them?"

But when the International Bluegrass Music Association named Blue Highway as its emerging artist of the year in 1995, it knew what it was doing.

The band has consistently released outstanding albums year after year and been one of the best bands on any festival card.

And "Sounds of Home," the band's 10th album, is its first with all original material in a decade.

Great stuff.

8. DALE ANN BRADLEY, "Somewhere South of Crazy," Compass Records. 12 tracks.

There's a reason the International Bluegrass Music Association selected Dale Ann Bradley as its female vocalist of the year three times — 2007-2009.

She's simply one of the best singers in country or bluegrass today. And her music today shows a depth and maturity that most country singers these days can only dream about.

The most powerful track on the album is Sarah Pirkle's "Come Home Good Boy," about a mother watching her teenage son go off to war.

7. CUMBERLAND RIVER, "The Life We Live," Rural Rhythm. 13 tracks.

All 13 songs on the album were written by the band's members — James Dean, Joey Jones, Dustin Middleton, Andy Buckner and Jamie Stewart.

They're good, full-bodied songs from a band that projects a redneck-rock attitude with a solid traditional bluegrass foundation.

The fact that two of the musicians are also miners lends an air of authenticity to the songs.

6. GRASSTOWNE, "Kickin' Up Dust," Rural Rhythm. 12 tracks.

Grasstowne became an instant supergroup when it burst on the bluegrass scene in 2007 with "The Road Headin' Home," a strong debut album that sent a single — "Dixie Flyer" — to the top of Bluegrass Unlimited's charts for three consecutive months.

It's led by Steve Gulley and Alan Bibey, two strong lead singers and songwriters.

Between them they contributed five songs to "Kickin' Up Dust."

Highlights include "Blue Rocking Chair," an uptempo song about an old chair that's seen a lot of family history; "I Don't Worry About You Anymore," a song about a cheating lover; "Our Father," a great a capella gospel song; and the title cut, which is the album's first single.

5. DOYLE LAWSON & QUICKSILVER, "Drive Time," Mountain Home. Seven tracks.

The buzz on the new Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver album, "Drive Time," came from two directions.

It's short. Only seven tracks.

And Lawson, whose roots are deep in traditional bluegrass, added drums to the album.

But drums, while still a novelty in traditional bluegrass, aren't really a distraction here — except possibly for the most traditional of fans.

And "Drive Time" is a strong album.

4. CHARLIE SIZEMORE, "Heartache Looking for a Home," Rounder. 14 tracks.

There is a growing subgenre in bluegrass and country music today that blends traditional country music with traditional bluegrass in a sound that fans of both can enjoy.

And nobody does it better than Charlie Sizemore.

Sizemore is 50 now, his voice honed to perfection with decades of singing behind him.

Highlights include "Red Wicked Wine," with Ralph Stanley; "No Lawyers in Heaven," a comic look at lawyers; "Feelin' Like El Paso," about a woman coming home from Hollywood to the cowboy she loves; and "Ashley Judd," a comic song that finds a man in love with a woman he knows he can't have.

3. WILDFIRE, "Crash Course in the Blues," Lonesome Day Records. 12 tracks.

Wildfire was formed in 2000. when four former members of J.D. Crowe's New South began working as the house bluegrass band at Dollywood, Dolly Parton's east Tennessee theme park.

After two years there, they hit the bluegrass circuit, playing festivals and concert halls across the country.

"Crash Course in the Blues" is a strong album with good songs, good harmony and good picking.

The title track tells the story of a West Virginia boy who thought Los Angeles looked like heaven until a California angel broke his heart; "21 Years" is about a man who goes to prison for a crime his girlfriend committed, only to find that she's quickly forgotten him; and "Lies That You Told," a song about a woman who broke her wedding vows with her husband's best friend — and now she's dead

2. LARRY SPARKS, "Almost Home," Rounder. 12 tracks.

In 1963, the year he turned 16, Larry Sparks hit the road with the Stanley Brothers, playing lead guitar.

As Carter Stanley's health deteriorated, Sparks' role in the band increased. And when Carter died in December 1966, Ralph Stanley hired Sparks as lead singer for his new band, Ralph Stanley & His Clinch Mountain Boys.

Tough shoes to fill, but Sparks filled them well. Today, he's one of the best singers in traditional bluegrass.

"Almost Home" is a collection of songs with themes that Sparks' fans have come to expect — a lot of lonesome and a lot of rambling.

And it's packed with nostalgia for home and simpler times.

And drum ... I mean, banjo ... roll, please.

1. JUNIOR SISK & RAMBLERS CHOICE, "The Heart of a Song," Rebel. 13 tracks.

If they ever do a bluegrass version of George Jones' "Who's Gonna Fill Their Shoes," one of the answers is Harry Sisk Jr. — Junior Sisk to his friends and fans.

Bluegrass musicians don't come more hard-core traditional than Sisk.

The first song on the new album by Sisk and his band, Ramblers Choice, "A Far Cry From Lester & Earl," laments the fact that bluegrass music today doesn't sound the way it used to.

If you feel that way, just hang on. There's a dozen more songs coming and you won't have ask if they're bluegrass. Well, a couple are more traditional country than bluegrass, but who's counting?

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Keith Lawrence: klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com

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(c)2011 the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.)

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