Amy Alvey and I were delighted to bring our listeners another year of The Old Fashioned in 2023, because bluegrass and old-time music need more platforms on radio and in the music business in general. And because it was such a brilliant and surprising year for traditional acoustic Americana. Here are ten albums, in no particular order, that we regarded as special, even indispensable collections from some of our most interesting artists.
East Nash Grass – Last Chance To Win
After six years of Monday evening sets, our very own house band from Deeâ€™s Lounge stepped up on the national stage, made their Opry debut, and dropped this clever, varied, traditional and deep bluegrass album. The talent across the board is exceptional, vocally and instrumentally. The album cover? Donâ€™t get it. The music? Flawless.
Mighty Poplar – Mighty Poplar
With Chris Thileâ€™s Punch Brothers off the road for at least a year, members Chris â€œCritterâ€ Eldridge and Noam Pikelny cooked up a supergroup with mandolinist Andrew Marlin (Watchhouse), fiddler Alex Hargreaves (Billy Strings) and Gregg Garrison on bass. The music is on the gentler, western side of bluegrass music, masterfully made. Their extensive touring made Mighty Poplar one of the yearâ€™s big stories.
Sami Braman – Riveter
New Nashvillian Sami Braman has been in the top-tier old-time quartet The Onlies since she was a child, but here, a few years after graduating college, sheâ€™s released her first solo album with some talented string band friends. No lyrics are needed to lend this project a moving, delightful, varied musical sweep. Her composing, a balance of the traditional and the personal, is, in a word, riveting.
Dan Tyminski – God Fearing Heathen
Sometimes weâ€™ve wished Alison Krauss and Union Station would share Dan Tyminski with the world more. His first solo bluegrass album since 2008 brims with sharp, original songs and top-tier musicianship, some of it thanks to three members of East Nash Grass. Their string band take on Danâ€™s pop collaboration â€œHey Brotherâ€ sounds amazing.
Robbie Fulks – Bluegrass Vacation
One of the sharpest, wittiest songwriters in Americana music came up playing bluegrass and at last heâ€™s turned his attention to the genre for a full album with a stellar band. â€œOne Glass of Whiskeyâ€ is an instant standard, while â€œLonghair Bluegrassâ€ tells important history of our music with snarky insight.
Sarah Kate Morgan – Old Tunes And Sad Songs
Kentucky based Sarah Kate Morgan is making mountain dulcimer cool with a virtuoso touch on her instrument and a lovely, tremulous songwriterâ€™s voice. This blend of originals and folk standards conjures the spirit of Jean Ritchie and Ola Belle Reed, making an important complement to the abundant country and bluegrass coming out of Kentucky these days.
Alice Gerrard – Sun To Sun
Sheâ€™s an 89-year-old icon of American folk music, and Alice Gerrard pulls no punches on this visceral, engaged album. She sings searingly about the cost of gun violence, the cancerous tenacity of Jim Crow, and even North Carolinaâ€™s absurd anti-trans legislation. Working with fiddler Tatiana Hargreaves and her peers makes this a cross-generational wonder.
Lonesome Ace Stringband – Try To Make It Fly
This Toronto trio has shown a powerful commitment to each other and to advancing old-time music on the strength of fresh rhythmic ideas and the masterful fiddling of John Showman. This collection or original songs and tunes may be their most progressive so far, but itâ€™s a great time, with the propulsive â€œMidnight Bandâ€ setting the tone.
Darrell Scott String Band – Old Cane Back Rocker
Scott, one of Americanaâ€™s finest singers and songwriters, found himself touring more often with a crack string band at bluegrass festivals, so he booked a week in Boulder to make this comfortable, passionate volume of mostly original songs, including a bluegrassy update of his career song â€œA Great Day To Be Alive.â€
Kristen Grainger And True North – Fear of Falling Stars
With award-winning songwriting, the utterly honest and endearing voice of Kristen, and a great story, KG and TN are my favorite roots/grass band discovery of 2023. Sheâ€™s a former political advisor and speech writer who quit that life in her 40s to pursue music full time with her guitar playing, harmony singing husband. This is not a driving banjo album, but an elegant and thoughtful interpretation of newgrass.
Craig Havighurst is WMOT’s editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: email@example.com