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Best bluegrass banjo albums

Posted by corcoran on Saturday, May 2, 2015

Occasionally the topic of best banjo albums pops up on BHO.  Here’s my strictly personal take on the topic, framed around players who you can learn from.  Needless to say, other people will have other opinions.  Note that I am for the most part talking about players who primarily play traditional bluegrass music in a bluegrass band setting.  I have refrained from including in the discussion stellar pickers such as Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, Jens Kruger, and Noam Pikelny. although I admit that one of these progressive super pickers -- Alison Brown -- did end up on my list.

Earl Scruggs:  Well, duh, of course you want to learn as much of Earl’s stuff as you can, so that you can qualify as a genuine scrugg (in the Flint Hill Flash’s immortal words).  Scruggs’s approach to 3-finger playing is prototypical, and although he did not invent the North Carolina 3-finger style, he certainly did polish and perfect it, and thereby he created a style that is accessible to other players.  If you can play like Earl, you are well on the way to becoming a banjo master.  The Flatt & Scruggs album “Foggy Mountain Banjo” is a classic, with lots of good lead breaks and arrangements.  But if you want to get into the meat of Earl’s exquisite backup work, listen carefully to the tracks on the Bear Family box set  “Flatt & Scruggs 1948 – 1959,” wherein you can hear Earl’s style develop and mature.  There is also lots of good stuff on the box set  “Flatt & Scruggs 1959 – 1963,” although perhaps less than on “1948 – 1959.”

Bill Keith:  Bill was among the first prominent urban pickers to master Scruggs’s style, both lead and backup, and of course he went on to introduce a generation of banjo players to melodic style, which IMHO he developed independently of Carroll Best and Bobby Thompson.  Bill’s solo albums are gems:  “Something Auld, Something Bluegrass,” “Banjoistics,” and “Beating Around the Bush.”  But anything he recorded is worth intense study, because you can learn something new every time you listen.  For me, Bill Keith’s influence is right up there with Earl Scruggs’s.

J. D. Crowe:  All of Crowe’s recordings are worthy of your attention, both for the lead breaks and for his backup, which is at least at the level of Scruggs’s, if not beyond it.  Although he is semi-retired, his playing remains exciting and first-rate.  The eponymous “J. D. Crowe and the New South” (Rounder 0044) is a classic, and I also recommend his recordings with the Bluegrass Album Band.

Sonny Osborne:  Like Crowe, Sonny out-scruggsed Scruggs, in my opinion.  If you can, get the Bear Family box sets of the Osborne Brothers.  The first one, “The Osborne Brothers 1956 – 1968,” captures the Brothers at their peak, with lots of exciting banjo by Sonny.  Right up until he retired, Sonny’s playing remained provocative, surprising, and vastly entertaining.

Don Reno:  Reno was of course Scruggs’s contemporary and, like Scruggs, a disciple of Snuffy Jenkins.   Reno’s style is way more flamboyant and, I think, more flexible than Scruggs’s.  His version of the North Carolina 3-finger style is, as noted, based on the playing of Snuffy Jenkins, among others, and in this sense is similar to although IMHO less sophisticated than Scruggs’s style.  That is, Reno's style is based more on forward rolls, whereas Scruggs's style introduced backward rolls and forward-backward rolls (in Bill Keith's terminology).  However, Reno went on to combine the North Carolina 3-finger style with a chordal approach, reminiscent of guitar playing, and a single-string style that he apparently learned from Eddie Adcock, both of which introduced a degree of jazzy improvisation to his playing.  Because it comprised a bunch of great tunes and songs I always loved the Reno and Smiley album “Country Songs and Instrumentals,” which unfortunately is long out of print.  But you can find tons of Reno’s banjo work on the 2 box sets King Records has released of Reno and Smiley’s recordings, “1951 – 1959” and “1959 – 1963.”  This is all worth studying for its own sake and also if you want to hear the precursor of the later styles of Bela Fleck, Alison Brown, Jens Kruger, Noam Pikelny, and others.

Don Stover:  After hearing Earl Scruggs, Stover learned the 3-finger style in the late 1940s, and spent much of his subsequent career playing with the Lilly Brothers in Boston, that hotbed of bluegrass music.  Stover’s playing is uniquely whimsical, often humorous, and ebullient, while at the same time hard-driving and authoritative.  He was an early influence on Bill Keith, who had access to Don in Boston.  Listen to the recordings of the Lilly Brothers and Don Stover on Smithsonian Folkways, as well as Don’s solo albums, including “Things in Life” on Rounder Records.

Eddie Adcock:  Adcock is one of the unsung geniuses of the 5-string banjo.  He developed the single-string approach and showed it to Don Reno, who in turn showed Adcock the rudiments of the 3-finger style.  He pioneered the chordal approach to playing slower tunes, with many of his breaks reminiscent of pedal steel.  Adcock’s most familiar playing is with the classic Country Gentlemen.  Listen to their albums on Smithsonian Folkways and the box set on Rebel Records.  He is also noteworthy for receiving implantation of an electrode into his brain for deep brain stimulation, to control essential tremor in his right hand.

Bill Emerson:  Emerson has been one of the foremost bluegrass banjo players for many decades.  I first became aware of him in the early 1960s, when I was knocked out by his impressive backup work.  He played with Jimmy Martin in the 1960s and recorded such classics as “Sweet Dixie,” "Theme Time," and “Wild Indian.”  He later jointed the Country Gentlemen and then the U.S. Navy band Country Current, and presently Emerson heads the band Sweet Dixie.  To appreciate Bill Emerson’s style and perhaps poach a few of his excellent ideas, listen to his superb lead and backup playing on “The Award-Winning Country Gentlemen,” his numerous tracks on the Country Gentlemen box set on Rebel Records, and his more recent recordings with Sweet Dixie.

Allen Shelton:  Shelton came into prominence in the 1960s as banjo picker for Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys.  And what a clever banjo player he was:  inventive, hard driving, and able to incorporate lots of pedal steel licks into his banjo style.  Shelton’s playing has been described as “bouncy,” and yet he also played with drive and panache.  His playing influenced many banjo players several decades ago.  For example, I can hear aspects of Shelton’s style in Bill Keith’s playing.  You can find lots of Shelton’s banjo on Bear Family’s box set of Jim and Jesse, as well as on his solo album “Shelton Express” on Rounder Records.

Alan Munde:  This guy is an amazing banjo picker.  After serving in boot camp under Jimmy Martin, he became one of the most accomplished players in bluegrass, mostly with his band Country Gazette.  His Scruggs styling is impeccable, and he melds it with melodic playing in a way that sustains the drive.  Munde has complex and original ideas, some of which require unique right hand picking patterns that he originated.  Furthermore, some of his left-hand positions seem to depend on having fingers like bananas.  Or at least it seems that way to me.  Munde is another one of those rare ones whose banjo picking is immediately identifiable when you hear it.  To appreciate his style, listen to any of the available Country Gazette albums as well as his numerous solo albums, including “Banjo Sandwich” and “The Banjo Kid Rides Again.”

Butch Robins: Robins is an iconoclast (to say the last), an author, a genuine historian of Bill Monroe’s music, and a philosopher about banjos, bluegrass, and life in general.  He is also one hell of a good banjo player, perhaps the most complete band player who ever played with Monroe.  His ideas banjoistic are original, pleasing, and often unexpected; and you can learn a lot from him.  Listen to his solo albums “The Fifth Child” and “Grounded, Centered, and Focused” among others, and also his playing with the Bluegrass Band.

Pete Wernick:  Everybody knows Dr. Banjo, and with good reason.  In addition to his activities as a productive banjo teacher and workshop leader, for a number of decades he has been the banjo player for Hot Rize, the wonderful band from Colorado.  Pete’s approach is pretty traditional and employs a judicious mix of straight-ahead Scruggs style with tasteful melodics.  He is particularly adept at what one might call “boogie banjo,” effectively taking lead breaks and driving backup on some of Hot Rize’s boogie-woogie tunes.  His playing is always worth listening to and studying, and you can find most Hot Rize recordings still available from their website or the usual sources.  Now if only I could figure out why he reminds me so much of that weirdo Waldo Otto, the steel player for Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers …

Tom Adams.  Tom was voted the IBMA Banjo Player of the Year 3 times, as I recall.  His playing with Jimmy Martin, the Johnson Mountain Boys, and the Lynn Morris Band is characterized by drive, subtlety, and creativity, and in my view he is one of the best ever.  Listen to his solo albums "Right Hand Man" and "Adams County Banjo" and you'll understand what I am talking about.  I particularly love his playing in Lynn Morris's band, and his tune "Red Line to Shady Grove" is a classic.  If you want a master class on improvisation, check out the album "Live at the Ragged Edge," by Adams and Michael Cleveland.  Unfortunately his 3-finger picking in recent years has been compromised by focal dystonia, but he now plays 2-finger style, he still writes a column in Banjo Newsletter, and he plays guitar in the band Bill Emerson and Sweet Dixie.

Alison Brown: I first heard of Alison Brown in the late 1980s or early 1990s, when she was backing Michelle Shocked, and went to see Shocked in concert in order to see Brown.  Shocked was a pleasant discovery, but Brown’s banjo picking really blew me away.  In improvisation and jazzy interpretations, she is right up there with Bela, Jens, and Noam.  Yet she can also pick straight-ahead hard driving bluegrass.  For an excellent sample of her banjo styles, listen to Brown’s album “Fair Weather.”

Kristin Scott Benson:  Benson was elected as the IBMA Banjo Player of the Year at least 26 times.  Just kidding, more like 3 or 4 – very impressive.  She has been the banjoist in the Grascals for some years now, and she provides sophisticated and subtle but driving picking to their rather eclectic repertoire.  In addition to playing wonderful lead breaks, Benson is also a master of backup, right up there with J. D. and the boys.  You can learn a lot from her playing, found on albums by the Grascals and also her solo album “Second Season.”

Steve Huber:  In addition to making superb banjos of the Masterclone persuasion, Huber is a terrific banjo player.  He sticks pretty much to straight-ahead Scruggs style, although he is a master of melodic, single-string, and chordal styles as well and can unleash them when required.  Some years ago Huber recorded several albums with Kenny and Amanda Smith, on which he played an original prewar flathead Gibson RB-Granada (not many of those floating around), and you should give a listen to those recordings.  Also give a listen to his solo album “Pullin’ Time” as well as the Team Flathead albums, which feature Huber banjos.

Mike Lilly:  Mike Lilly’s playing combines Scruggs style, melodics, chordal approaches, and single-string in a seamless fashion.  He is one hell of a banjo player, and he’s a good singer to boot.  Check out his album with Harley Allen, on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.  And if that is your first exposure to Harley Allen’s singing and song-writing, you are in for a treat.

Paul Sylvius:  This guy is an outstanding player who is largely unrecognized.  I know of his work with Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys, and I was always impressed with his drive, creativity, and taste.  He has lots of good ideas, and his playing is a pleasure to listen to.  I understand that, sadly, he is no longer playing.  The most accessible source of his playing is on the Rounder compilation of Joe Val’s recordings “Diamond Joe.”

Rob McCoury.  He grew up in Del McCoury's band, initially playing bass and then moving on to banjo, and his playing has grown proportionately through the years.  His banjo picking is hard-driving, inventive, and tasteful.  You can learn a lot from his recent solo album "The 5-String Banjo Flame Thrower," which is chock full of fine tunes and terrific ideas.  I think he is one of the best all-around banjo players out there today.

3 comments on “Best bluegrass banjo albums”

RB3Deering Says:
Saturday, May 2, 2015 @3:00:03 PM

These are all great and awesome banjo pickers! I always love to listen to and watch Alison Brown and Kristin Scott Benson, especially. In addition, see my post about Lauren Seapy, formerly of Lost Highway.

corcoran Says:
Sunday, August 9, 2015 @11:21:11 AM

Thanks for informing me about Lauren Seapy, who is a strong picker. She was in an earlier incarnation of Lost Highway. I am familiar with the band after Ken Orrick took it over, when the amazing Dick Brown was the banjo player.


TNCowboy Says:
Sunday, October 25, 2015 @8:21:01 AM

Great blog post Michael. You did a wonderful job of offering insight into each players style and albums to hear examples. I look forward to your review of the more progressive players. I know that everyone who reads this will have someone to add to your list, so I'll add one. Bill Knopf, while never reaching the national exposure, has certainly expanded the boundaries of the 5 string; while he is an accomplished player in Scruggs, single string and melodic styles, he has used these techniques to delve into the world of John Phillip Sousa.

Thanks for your post, it was an enjoyable and educational read.


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