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.
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.