These are band oriented CDs. For instrument
specific recommendations go
The three most influential 1st generation
Bill Monroe: As the "Father
of Bluegrass" any Bill Monroe recordings are worth hearing.
A 2 CD set called Bill Monroe Anthology ($22.50) on
MCA that includes some of his best material from his entire career.
Also recommended is 16 Gems on Columbia, which includes
the first true bluegrass with Flatt & Scruggs in the band. For those who want a large dose of Bill Monroe, the Bear Family label has everything you could want, check them out at County Sales.
Stanley Brothers: The two
disc CD set on Bear Family called The Stanley Brothers
and the Clinch Mountain Boys 1953-58 & 1959, is my
favorite set. Most any Stanley Brothers recording will be
good though, with lots of lonesome "mountain-style"
Flatt & Scruggs: The
Complete Mercury Sessions is a must have, as well as
Foggy Mountain Banjo, the very influential banjo album.
An interesting album is Live At Carnegie Hall on Koch.
The more expensive ($65) Bear Family 4 CD set Lester Flatt
& Earl Scruggs 1948-1959 is highly recommended for
those wanting all of the best of their prime years. It includes
all of the Mercury Sessions CD, a book with tons of info,
but doesn't include the banjo album. Stay away from any of
their recordings made after the mid-60's.
Other popular bands from the 1950's:
Reno & Smiley: The
4 CD set on King called Reno & Smiley and the Tennessee
Cut-ups, 1951 - 1959 ($45) and it includes much of their
best material and a very informative book. When you factor
in all around skills, Don Reno must be considered one of the
greatest musicians bluegrass has ever seen; he wrote over
500 songs, was a huge innovator on the banjo, a flatpicker
on the guitar and a great tenor singer. The vocal blend between
him and Red Smiley is very compelling.
Jimmy Martin: A great vocal
talent who passed away in 2005, Jimmy comes from the country
end of the bluegrass vocal spectrum, but with so much emotional
grit, he can grab you like no other. You Don't Know My
Mind, 1956-66 or The King Of Bluegrass are two
of his best compilations from his best years. If you really
get into Jimmy, you'll need his 5 CD Bear Family collection,
Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys ($100), that
spans about twenty years including all his earliest years.
Jim & Jesse: This brothers
duet had very smooth, refined harmonies but not as gritty
as some. Jesse's mandolin playing features lots of cross-picking
breaks and they always carried top-flight banjo players. There
is a very nice 4 CD box ($45) set called The Old Dominion
Masters that has their recordings from the 60's and 70's.
One of my favorite of their newer CDs is In The Tradition
Osborne Brothers: From
the Country side of bluegrass, this band is famous for Bobby
Osborne's high lead voice with the harmonies stacked underneath.
The material tends to be on the "hokey" side. Try
Once More Vol 1 & 2, a fairly recent re-recording
of many of their classics.
Post 1960's bluegrass in no particular
Bluegrass Album Band: These
albums are, to my knowledge, the first all-star band (led
by Tony Rice) recordings of traditional bluegrass and it created
quite a stir when the first vinyl came out in 1981. All of
their albums are very good and I use them to demonstrate how
a bluegrass ensemble should sound. I'd go for the 1st two
compilation CDs The Bluegrass Album Compact Disc (Rounder
11502) and Volume 2 of the same. (Rounder 11516)
Ralph Stanley: Ralph has
continued on to this day without his brother Carter, who passed
away in 1966. His album Cry From The Cross is a classic
and his Clinch Mountain Country features many guest
stars from the bluegrass and country fields and exemplary
fiddling from James Price. (Rebel)
Hazel Dickens: The first
great female bluegrass singer, with a hard-edged old-school
voice that blends old country and mountain singing. A Few
Old Memories on Rounder is a good starting place.
Dan Paisley and the Southern Grass:
One of the most powerful
bands in all of bluegrass, this band seems to have a small
but loyal following like no other. Considered by many bluegrass
insiders to be the best ultra-traditional band going, this
band plays music like a freight train going down the tracks.
Formerly under the name Bob Paisley, but since Bob passed away in 2005, the band continues with
his son Dan at the helm and amazingly they are just as good
as ever. Steeped in the Tradition or Back to the
Blue Ridge are my choices, but any of their recordings
Country Gentlemen: The
first progressive "Urban bluegrass" band from DC
features occasional repertoire from outside the Bluegrass
world. A live recording on Smithsonian Folkways called On
The Move is a good display of the classic early 1960's
sound and humor.
Seldom Scene: This band
is noted for the same progressive approach as the Country
Gentlemen, but even more modern. Live At The Cellar Door
on Rebel is a good intro to their sound.
Del McCoury: A great family
band, Del has two sons in the band and they are one of the
hottest acts going today. Straight bluegrass with a few different
twists. High singing and burning instrumental breaks are served
up on the last several albums. Try The Family. (Ceili
Rice & Skaggs: This
duet album isn't really a bluegrass album, but a throwback
to the brothers duet sound common in the 1930's and 40's.
Excellent harmony singing and tasteful, understated guitar
and mandolin. (Rounder)
Longview: This all-star
band features the greatest singers and players in the business.
About as close to perfection as traditional bluegrass has
gotten, this band is most noted for the ethereal vocals of
four great singers. Try either of their first two albums on
Rounder, one simply titled Longview and the other,
Ricky Skaggs: As with Longview,
this is virtually perfect bluegrass, both vocally (Ricky Skaggs
is as good as they get) and instrumentally. Incredible guitar
solos by Bryan Sutton, some Stuart Duncan fiddling (in addition
to Bobby Hicks) and Jim Mills on banjo. Bluegrass Rules
(Rounder) and Ancient Tones (SKFR- 1001)
Kathy Kallick and Laurie Lewis:
There's a shortage of great female bluegrass singers, but
the Bay Area certainly has two of the best. They team up here
with some of the best duet singing you'll ever hear on Together.
(Kaleidoscope) Check out their solo albums too.
Lynn Morris: Another strong
female bluegrass singer originally from Texas, with a very
clear voice and a strong band. My favorite album is The
Bramble and the Rose (Rounder).
True Life Blues: This is
an all-star cast that pays tribute to the songs of Bill Monroe.
Varying, but stellar musicians throughout the album. Very
good album at every level. (Sugar Hill)
J.D.Crowe: His 1974 self-titled
album on Rounder is a classic and featured one of the greatest
bands of all time. Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas
were all just youngsters who have had a huge impact on the
Hot Rize: This Colorado-based
band of the 80's featured singing and songwriting of Tim O'Brien.
Very tight band. Any of their albums are good but I'd put
Traditional Ties and Radio Boogie at the top.
Johnson Mountain Boys:
One of the best hard-driving ultra-traditional bands of all
time. Very consistent albums. Live at the Old School House
and Blue Diamond are my picks. (Rounder)
Rhonda Vincent: One of the most successful acts in bluegrass today, Rhonda has a powerhouse band and the ability to play hard-driving bluegrass as well as her more Country-influenced torch songs. Her bands have only gotten better over time, so try her latest offerings, like Ragin' Live or The Storm Still Rages.
Tony Rice: Probably the
most influential guitarist ever, and a good singer too. I'd
recommend his self-titled Tony Rice as well as the
somewhat more progressive Manzanita. (Rounder)
David Grisman: Known for
his pioneering "Dawg music" this mandolinist put
out a double CD of traditional bluegrass called Home Is
Where The Heart Is with many great singers and players.
California's claim to raw-edged traditional bluegrass, Vern
is a litmus test for how serious you are about the high-powered,
unrefined end of the bluegrass spectrum. Bluegrass From
The Gold Country is his only studio album, but it's not
for the faint of heart. Traditional Bluegrass (Arhoolie)
is a fabulous collection of Vern Williams Band live recordings
from the early '80s.
Nashville Bluegrass Band:
Two of the best singers in bluegrass (Alan O'Bryant and Pat
Enright) along with the best fiddler of all (Stuart Duncan).
My favorite album is The Boys Are Back In Town. (Sugar
Lonesome River Band: This
influential band is on the modern side of bluegrass with an
incredibly tight sound and top-level musicianship. Some of
their material borders on sappy country, but their straight
bluegrass is very dynamic, with well thought out arrangements.
Try Carrying The Tradition (Rebel) and One Step
Forward. ( Sugar Hill)
Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver:
Later years have seen a focus on elaborate 4-part gospel vocals
and if you want to hear the state-of-the-art, get Gospel
Radio Gems on Sugar Hill.
Alison Krauss: Too much
toward the "pop" side for my tastes, nonetheless
Krauss is the best selling bluegrass artist of the last 15
years. I actually like her album Every Time You Say Goodbye
1946: Named in honor of
the year bluegrass as we now know it was first recorded, this
band has two self-released CDs - one simply called 1946,
and Howling Wind Blues. David Peterson vocally fronts
this powerful band, and as you might imagine from their name,
it's rooted in the traditional side of bluegrass. But they
have fresh creative approaches to old songs and a few new
songs that sound like old songs, great singing and really
great, tasteful soloing.