It's that time again. Time to list the 10 best bluegrass albums of the year. And these are the best I've heard in 2000.
"Big Mon: The Songs of Bill Monroe," various artists. Skaggs Family Records. 13 cuts.
Take the music of Bill Monroe. Update it with some top acts from country, rock and pop. And you've got an album that will appeal to a much wider audience than your typical bluegrass album.
Producer Ricky Skaggs brought in Bruce Hornsby, The Dixie Chicks, John Fogerty, Dolly Parton, Steve Wariner, Patty Loveless, The Whites, Travis Tritt, Charlie Daniels, Joan Osborne, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Dwight Yoakam. And the result is every bit as good as it sounds.
"The Pizza Tapes," Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Tony Rice. Acoustic Disc. 20 cuts.
This studio jam session was recorded in 1993, but it was available only in bootleg editions until now.
Garcia, Grisman and Rice were in a ballad mood that day. The song list includes "Man of Constant Sorrow," a killer version of "Long Black Veil," "Drifting Too Far From The Shore," "House of the Rising Sun" and what is reputed to be the only recorded version of Garcia singing "Amazing Grace."
A good Christmas present for a fan of any of these guys.
"Always in Style: A Collection," John Duffey. Sugar Hill. 21 cuts.
Sugar Hill marked the fourth anniversary of Duffey's death with this compilation of 21 of his best performances culled from 18 years in the studio 1978 to 1996.
Duffey rose to stardom in 1957 with The Country Gentlemen. And in the '70s, he became even bigger as the driving force behind the Seldom Scene.
These cuts include members of both groups. Great harmonies. Powerful singing. Outstanding picking. It's a must-have album for Duffey fans.
"Transatlantic Sessions," various artists. Ceili Music. 15 cuts.
Score another one for Ricky Skaggs.
This album was recorded in Scotland for a BBC series of the same name. And it has an outstanding international cast including Skaggs, Nanci Griffith, Sharon White, Radney Foster, Maura O'Connell, Jerry Douglas, Rosanne Cash, Aly Bain, Tommy Hayes, Breda Smyth, Michael Doucet, Sharon Shannon, Eddi Reader, Paul Brady and Iain MacDonald.
There's some truly haunting music on here.
"Scene It All," Seldom Scene. Sugar Hill. 12 cuts.
Since founder John Duffey's death four years ago, this band has lived up to its name. And fans wondered if it would survive.
This album answers the question with an emphatic "Yes."
"Scene It All" is worth the wait. And it proves that the Scene is still a cutting-edge progressive bluegrass band.
"Heartbreak Town," Ronnie McCoury. Rounder. 13 cuts.
McCoury is emerging from the long shadow of his father, bluegrass legend Del McCoury, as a star in his own right.
"Heartbreak Town" establishes his claim as one of the top musicians in the new decade. And it proves that McCoury can channel the high-lonesome pain of bluegrass with the best of them.
"Tomorrow," Jerry & Tammy Sullivan. Ceili Music. 12 cuts.
Jerry and Tammy Sullivan, a father-daughter act, offer an antidote to all that high-lonesome pain.
You can sum the message of this album up in one word: hope.
All the songs but one were written by producer Marty Stuart and Jerry Sullivan, separately or together.
"Back Home Again," Rhonda Vincent. Rounder. 12 cuts.
The title says it all. Vincent, one of the rising stars in bluegrass a decade ago, has returned to her roots after spending most of the '90s trying to make her mark in Nashville.
From the opening licks of Wayne Raney's "Lonesome Wind Blues," there's no doubt that the album's title is correct. Vincent is knee-deep in bluegrass and having a ball.
"Empty Old Mailbox," Don Rigsby. Sugar Hill. 14 cuts.
From the opening notes of the first cut Dale Ferguson and Don Rigsby's "I Won't Be There" you know two things: This is definitely a bluegrass album. And it's going to be good.
Rigsby is a passionate, emotional singer who can wring the lonesome out of any song. And there's not a bad cut on this album.
"Talkin' To Myself," Lonesome River Band. Sugar Hill. 12 cuts.
A few years ago, some fans were afraid that the bright lights of Nashville might be blinding one of bluegrass' best bands.
But this album proves that you can have your cake and eat it too. It's both contemporary and traditional with solid vocals, instrumentation and song selection.
Give it a listen if you haven't already.