Giving Thanks That Bluegrass Is BACK!
No matter what the occasion might be in music these days, the favorite sport of the media and many fans is to ferret out whatever is wrong with it and harp on that as opposed to finding the favorable news to focus on and being thankful for it. For sure, we now see this annually with the Grammy Awards, which recently announced their nominations, with the absolute most cynical views being the ones that rise to the top, the snubs becoming the central focus as opposed to the deserved accolades, and certain people just looking to draw as much negativity as possible from the exercise, completely forgetting why we’re all music fans in the first place, which is to enjoy the musical medium.
For example, you can’t but help look at the nominees for the Grammy’s Best Bluegrass Album this year, and feel infinitely blessed. Hell, country’s awards shows don’t even acknowledge bluegrass music. For years, this Grammy category would often just sort of blow by with some of the same boring nominations, only relevant to those in the bluegrass realm. The selections had made the whole enterprise rather, well … sleepy.
Boy, that’s not the case this year when five heavyweight titans will be battling it out for the title with Sturgill Simpson, Billy Strings, Béla Fleck, the Infamous Stringdusters, and the Queen of Bluegrass Rhonda Vincent all vying for the trophy. It’s indicative of the rising tide in bluegrass that is raising all boats, and putting renewed interest behind this genre that is so fundamental to country music.
See 2022 Country and Roots Grammy Nominations
A year removed from it now, it really is pretty remarkable to look back and recognize that Sturgill Simpson released not one, but two volumes of his music re-recorded as bluegrass songs, and with a stellar lineup of pickers behind him. It’s not every day you get these kinds of projects from leading names in an industry that help spread the love of bluegrass beyond its conventional borders. Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 really got folks across the country landscape thinking in a bluegrass state of mind once again, and both volumes enjoyed strong sales for what is supposed to be niche music.
Béla Fleck is already considered a bonafide bluegrass legend, and has been for years. But trying to confine Béla’s bounding creativity and instrumental prowess within the borders of bluegrass has been a challenge for decades now. He’s just as inclined to venture off into stuff that’s as akin to improvisational jazz or avant-garde as authentic bluegrass. But here he is with his new album called My Bluegrass Heart rekindling his love for his native genre, and expressing it in spellbinding ways with a litany of collaborators from across the bluegrass spectrum such Sierra Hull, Michael Cleveland, Sam Bush, Chris Thile, Jerry Douglas, Brian Sutton, and so many more who are doing their own parts to instill renewed interest in the bluegrass genre.
Molly Tuttle has already won the IBMA’s Guitarist of the Year award twice in her short career, but she has never really released a proper bluegrass album. Like so many of bluegrass’s prodigy musicians who master the art early on and feel inclined venture off, she’s focused more on songwriting than flatpicking recently. But Molly just fielded a new all-star bluegrass band called Golden Highway, booked a slew of dates, and has a new bluegrass album on the way behind a promising new single, “She’ll Change.” Young and old, some of bluegrass’s most talented pickers are re-committing to the genre, and releasing landmark music.
And of course all of this feels like its being led by Billy Strings, and the swelling success he’s been enjoying that is making both traditional bluegrass and more jam-style experimentation accessible to wider audiences than ever before. When you watch him live or listen to his new album Renewal, you really feel like we’re witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime performer launch a career folks will be marveling at for generations to come.
You combine this all together, and no, it still may not be like the O Brother Where Art Thou resurgence bluegrass enjoyed in 2001, but it may be close, and be more sustainable. The O Brother moment was built a little bit more on hype, nostalgia, and interlopers, and proved to be a somewhat short-lived. What’s happening in bluegrass at the moment feels alive and kinetic in a way that its momentum could be graced with longevity. You see younger folks watching Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle, and wanting to emulate them. You have fans listening to Sturgill Simpson’s bluegrass records, and seeking out more where that came from. Then these listeners reconnect with the music of artists such as Béla Fleck, and a whole universe of bluegrass music is opened up to them.
And none of this mentions bluegrass acts like Rhonda Vincent and the Infamous Stringdusters, who are also nominated for the Grammy’s Best Bluegrass Album in 2022, Gary Brewer and the Kentucky Ramblers, who even in the current environment of new bluegrass stars has been one of the best-selling bluegrass acts in the last couple of years, or the scores of other excellent bluegrass artists and bands out there that are enjoying a renewed interest from all the young and fresh acts, and resurgent legends infusing new blood into the subgenre. From festival lineups, to albums sales charts, to the individual playlists of fans, you’re seeing bluegrass on the same level as other independent country music that is continuing to gobble up market share from the mainstream.
I know what some will say: Bluegrass has always been here. And that’s most certainly true. But for these subgenres of country music to sustain, they need fresh blood every few years, both in the form of exciting new performers, and new fans. And in 2021, bluegrass is enjoying both.
Thom's Country Bunker
November 25, 2021 @ 9:58 am
Thanks for this!
November 25, 2021 @ 10:30 am
Yes thanks for bluegrass! To me it always hits home as the ultimate source of Country Music
(obviously blended with other sources as well) coming from the hills of the South, passed on by generations. So real, you can’t water it down like some of today’s Country Music. Ricky Skaggs really connected me to bluegrass with his renditions of Uncle Pen, and Country Boy. Blessed to see Rhonda at the Opry this year too.
Also Trigger on this Thanksgiving, just want to thank you for all you do with this wonderful website which has taught me so much about more obscure yet greatly talented artists. You are a blessing to us all!
November 25, 2021 @ 10:50 am
Giving thanks to you Trig. You’ve brought so much joy into my life introducing me to so much good music that’s helped me through some tough times and provided the sound track to some great ones.
November 25, 2021 @ 10:53 am
Also town mountain and the steeldrivers don’t get enough credit.
November 26, 2021 @ 2:16 pm
I love Town Mountain!
November 28, 2021 @ 5:58 am
I’ll third that Town Mountain shout out! Discovered them earlier this year and was instantly hooked! Their cover of “I’m On Fire” at Red Rocks makes my soul ache with that fiddle riff near the end…
November 25, 2021 @ 11:10 am
Maybe it’s just me but I feel that Justin Moses’s record from this year really deserved recognition. It was one of my favorite records regardless of genre this year.
November 25, 2021 @ 11:33 am
I’m thankful for this site. Keep up the great work, Trigger!
(Not) The Ghost Of OlaR...
November 25, 2021 @ 11:46 am
Let’s not forget the non-american artists.
Angus Gill who got 4 Golden Guitar Nominations for his fantastic The Scrapbook album incl. the current single “Whittling Away” (feat. Jim Lauderdale) which is moving up to #4 on the Aussie Country Top 40 & the next song is already on the charts (“The Apron” – New Entry on #39).
The first single “Always On The Run” is my Bluegrass Track/Heritage Country/ Bush Ballad of the year 2021.
Montgomery Church with the album Where The Quiet Can Hide (debuted on the Aussie Country Album charts on #3 & #2 on the independent label charts)…male/female duo mixing bluegrass, folk & gospel leaning tracks. The result are two nominations for a Golden Guitar.
One of my Top 10 AotY.
The Water Runners with the album Further Down The Road & the great single “Eureka” blending aussie folk & bluegrass.
Kristy Cox who is not only a star down under & reaching the Top 10 with the majority of her singles, winning awards like the Golden Guitar Bluegrass catergory a couple of times…she is established in the US too releasing fine album after fine album.
And there many more…
November 25, 2021 @ 12:15 pm
“it still may not be like the O Brother Where Art Thou resurgence bluegrass enjoyed in 2001, but it may be close, and be more sustainable”
I don’t know, O Brother tunes are still staples at house parties. Gillian Welch tunes have become standards out here. One of the best things about bluegrass is that it demands its people can actually play, and you can take the music as high as you want to go.
Bluegrass is built on bedrock. It will disappear when Kentucky does, i.e., never.
November 26, 2021 @ 7:57 am
Same here. Somebody pulled out “Annabelle” last night.
November 25, 2021 @ 1:44 pm
Add the great up and coming artist AJ Lee & Blue Summit to this list too, they are awesome, and she’s someone to keep your eyes on, she has it all!
November 25, 2021 @ 2:02 pm
Don’t forget that the Isaacs recently joined the Grand Ole Opry.
November 25, 2021 @ 3:39 pm
Can’t get enough of Sturgill’s Vol 1 & 2. To me Sturgill has that natural bluegrass vocal delivery. Oh Sarah and I Don’t Mind should be considered standards.
While I’m at it, Steve Earle’s The Mountain is another great bluegrass album from an artist not known as a regular bluegrass performer. The McCourys took Steve’s compositions to another level.
November 25, 2021 @ 3:51 pm
Pre-pandemic, I never minded bluegrass but I also never sought it out. I’m from the Appalachian region, so I grew up hearing it in church and some older relatives. Beyond that, I definitely knew the O Brother soundtrack and a handful of Bill Monroe and Flat and Scruggs songs, but that was basically it.
Early on during the lockdown, I discovered Billy Strings and became obsessed. From there, Chris Stapleton’s work with the Steeldrivers and Keith Whitley’s bluegrass career were natural paths to explore since I already enjoyed their solo work. Before long, I was scouring my local record shop for all of the old bluegrass records I could get my hands on. I must have three dozen Stanley Brothers or Ralph Stanley LPs at this point. Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, the Dillards, J.D. Crowe, Dave Evans, the Country Gentlemen, Seldom Scene… I spent a good chunk of the pandemic becoming familiar with their music. So Sturgill’s bluegrass albums and seeing Billy Strings live back in June were just fuel to the fire. And now I’m attempting to learn the mandolin.
I’m sure my experience isn’t typical, but then again there were a hell of a lot of people at that Billy Strings show.
November 25, 2021 @ 5:23 pm
Steve, best comment! Your story isnt atypical at all. You are like many of us who fall in love with a sound and chase it backwards in time. Quite a rabbit hole you fell into. I know with some traditional fans, they find Billy to be a bit too much. Lately i ask every bluegrass musician i run across , what they think of him, and so far 10/10 say that they LOVE what hes doing, because hes bringing a new audience to discover the grass. And these are TRADITIONAL guys, schooled in Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe. Aint making it up.
Some other names for you from todays scene you may enjoy: Dailey and Vincent, Flatt Lonesome, Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers, Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, Rob Ickes, Grascals, and so many more. And finally, do not overlook The Del McCoury band. One of the greatest and my favorite for 20 years.
November 26, 2021 @ 7:59 am
November 26, 2021 @ 7:01 pm
Hey Steve, my father in law owned rebel recording.
And produced seldom scene, country gentlemen and Ralph Stanley. He pasted away seven years ago. He always said bluegrass may never be as big as rock and roll but it will always be there. Thanks for keeping his dream Alive
November 27, 2021 @ 6:53 am
Was Dick Freeland your father-in-law?
November 27, 2021 @ 6:47 am
You need to check out the great work of Jimmy Martin and Larry Sparks as well.
November 25, 2021 @ 3:58 pm
This article demands that I post the world’s greatest Bluegrass joke.
Q: How many banjo pickers does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Four. One to change the light bulb, and three to stand around saying, “That ain’t the way Earl done it!”
November 25, 2021 @ 5:12 pm
Seldom Scene were rock stars in their day. Truly transformational.
November 25, 2021 @ 6:15 pm
The DC/Maryland bluegrass scene is very interesting. The Seldom Scene, the Stoneman family and many more. I just figured out that I saw Mike Auldridge playing at the first bluegrass festival I attended. At the time I was more shocked to get to meet Herb Pedersen, then later figuring out how many classic albums he played on!
November 26, 2021 @ 4:00 pm
The Johnson Mountain Boys were a great band. They were inducted into the Bluegrass HOF last year. Saw them once at The Barns of Wolf Trap in the early 90’s.
November 26, 2021 @ 8:27 pm
Watch this and thank me later. Just before the great John Duffey passed away.
November 25, 2021 @ 8:57 pm
This year I heard and bought JD Crowe and the New South’s My Home Ain’t In The Hall Of Fame, which is one of my favorite older albums of the year-love Keith Whitley’s vocals.
And if you get a chance, listen to Liam Purcell & Cane Mill Road. Saw him at the Station Inn, he is 18, a prodigy on the mandolin, is studying at Berklee School of Music, and has such potential. He was honest with us when he said he hadn’t written a ton of songs as he was only 18 and hadn’t really experienced a lot of life to write about yet!
November 25, 2021 @ 10:38 pm
The cool thing for me when I went down the Billy Strings rabbit hole was discovering the genius of Doc Watson. And then after going down the Doc Watson rabbit hole of flat top picking, I discovered the genius of Steve Goodman. Steve was not only a great writer and performer, but a fabulous picker and soul. Check out some of his live shows on youtube, it’s good therapy for the soul !
November 26, 2021 @ 8:52 am
I love coungry music but I really really love bluegrass. Thanks for this article!
November 26, 2021 @ 11:57 am
Great write up and it is definitely an exciting time. Seeing Billy Strings live over Halloween this year rekindled my love for playing banjo and I’m enjoying learning about all kinds of players I overlooked for years. Right now I’m into Ron Stewart… don’t miss him if you love some good banjo! The Boxcars self titled album is a great place to start.
November 26, 2021 @ 2:20 pm
I love bluegrass, but sometimes it’s forgotten (like you pointed out it’s not even recognized on the CMAs!). Since Sturgill put out the first volume, my truck has been on the Sirius Bluegrass Junction station.
November 26, 2021 @ 3:59 pm
Billy has huge photo outside country music hall of fame right now
November 26, 2021 @ 7:54 pm
My father in law produced bluegrass music. He had seldom , country gentlemen and Ralph Stanley among others. My wife grow up spending summers on the bus traveling from festival to festival. My father in law passed away 7years ago but he always said bluegrass may not be as big as rock and roll but it would always be there. Thanks for keeping his dream alive
November 27, 2021 @ 9:36 am
That Swamptooth record reviewed here recently has been my jam lately. Would also recommend the new Tim O’Brien record for anyone looking to dig into some more bluegrass gems from 2021
November 27, 2021 @ 11:42 am
I would add Rhiannon Giddeons to that picture. Not a complaint just a notice of the wealth in bluegrass field right now.