Beyond Bluegrass: A New Western Frontier

Beyond Bluegrass: A New Western Frontier

Less than one month into the new year, 2015 has already asserted itself as a tremendous year for the American singer-songwriter.

And if January is any indication of what’s to come, the 2015 sound finds these songsmiths picking away at roots of the gnarled, old oak tree that represents Americana at its finest. In a matter a weeks we’ve been treated to some of the handsomest new examples of country, folk and bluegrass, which are being fused with a modern openness to external influence without diluting a faithfulness to their origins.

The showing is so impressive we just had to gather some of the highlights so far into a playlist, as well as mention a few albums we can’t help ourselves from mentioning. You don’t have to put your ear to the ground to hear that the sound is in the soil.

We have to kick things off with the amazing new album by Punch Brothers, titled The Phosphorescent Blues.

One of the most innovative and eclectic bands out there, their fourth album was produced by the legendary T Bone Burnett, a match that blossomed after Burnett recruited the band to contribute on the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis.

If Punch Brothers were still living under the shadow of Chris Thile’s former outfit, Nickel Creek, they aren’t anymore. Carried home by Thile’s virtuosic mandolin, Phosphorescent Blues is the most brilliant work yet from a band that is only sharpening their progressive blend of bluegrass, classical and jazz.

The same words – eclectic and unique – also apply to Minneapolis’ Dark Dark Dark. They make their very own soup, mixing Americana with New Orleans jazz and Eastern European folk. The mainly instrumental album Flood Tide is the soundtrack to the film of the same name, which was written and directed by former bassist Todd Chandler and includes members of the band acting in various roles.

The Lone Bellow is another great band that is neither bound nor unfaithful to their Americana identity.

Living up to the high expectations following their darling self-titled debut, the Brooklyn’s trio sophomore album – produced by The National’s Aaron Dessner – is a confident blend of alt-country, rock, blues and R&B that has already gained some great reviews.

AllMusic said, “Then Came the Morning is no sophomore slump … this set is far more varied, savvy, and uplifting than its predecessor, yet sacrifices no depth.”

Also, be sure to take note of the new album from folklorist and southern Indiana native Joseph O’Connell. Where in Our Woods is his 15th album under the moniker Elephant Micah, and another excellent set of reflective and sparsely arranged songs, this time with guest appearances by Will Oldham (Bonnie “Prince” Billy).

Amongst other favorites so far this year, we have to mention southern surrealist Jim White collaborating with the bluegrass-outfit The Packway Handle Band.

Nashville’s Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors could be mistaken for well-written indie folk-pop if it weren’t for their country modesty and honky-tonk grooves. Then there’s soft-spoken singer-songwriter Andrew Combs, who has been described as a modern-day Mickey Newbury.

And on what’s surely his greatest album so far, Ryan Bingham (yeah, the guy behind “The Weary Kind”), dealt the sudden passing of both of his parents by writing in complete seclusion from the world, and later recording the album over the course of a month with engineer Jim Scott (Wilco, Tom Petty).

Of it, American Songwriter wrote, “It’s clear Bingham has written some of his finest, most emotionally revealing material while squirreled away in his airstream trailer in the California mountains.”

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, and, keep in mind, it’s still January, folks!

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