A Guide to Recent Releases by the Best in the Bluegrass/Newgrass Genre

Darol Anger and the American Fiddle Ensemble
Republic of Strings
Compass Records


Comprising master fiddler Darol Anger (David Grisman Quintet, the Montreux Band, the Turtle Island String Quartet, Psychograss, and the Grammy-nominated Fiddlers 4) , guitarist Scott Nygaard (Tim O’Brien’s O’Boys, Laurie Lewis and Grant Street), five-string fiddler Brittany Haas, and maverick cellist Rushad Eggleston (Fiddlers 4), the American Fiddle Ensemble, whose members range in age from 16 to 50, encompasses string music from around the world. The AFE roams thrrough material that borrows from bluegrass, pop, r&b, jazz, Brazilian, African, middle eastern,and Scandinavian influences. Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins and bluegrass favorite Laurie Lewis lend their voices to a pair of reconstructed pop classics, Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” (Watkins) and Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me” (Lewis). This be stylish and graceful wooden music well-suited to the spring season.

Sam Bush
King of My World
Sugar Hill Records


King Sammy is back at it with his latest offering of good and tasty blender-grass. Mixing acoustic-oriented jazz, reggae, soul, Afro-pop, bluegrass, country and the kitchen sink, Sam and his boys do it like none other. With a tongue-in-cheek sensibility that blends seamlessly with a down-home everyman vibe, the Nashville-based quartet displays what has made Bush a longtime favorite at summertime bluegrass festivals such as Telluride Bluegrass, High Sierra and Rockygrass, to name a few of the band’s favorite haunts. Check out their cover of a Grandpa Jones classic “Eight More Miles to Lousville,” Sam’s original acoustic instrumental romp “Bananas,” and a fine take on the Ed Snodderly-penned “Majestic,” which tells the tale of an inspired shoe shine boy. Plus much much more.

Visit www.sambush.com. for future live show dates

Phillips, Grier & Flinner
Looking Back

Tradition meets perdition on this mellow session as acoustic virtuosos Todd Phillips, Matt Flinner and David Grier delve into genre-bending territory. The trio takes mandolin, stand-up bass and acoustic guitar down twisting back roads using the vintage sounds of Bill Monroe, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix and others. Can you say bluejazz?

Railroad Earth
Bird in a House
(Sugar Hill)

Add to the jamgrass family Railroad Earth, a band whose name derives from an ode by Jack Kerouac. Songsmith Todd Sheaffer and his talented ensemble kick up an acoustic fuss reminiscent of the best bluegrass and folk. “Mountain Time” creates a dreamy landscape in which a sleepy river keeps the clock, a tableau that best reflects the group’s ethos.

Mutual Admiration Society
Glen Phillips, Sara Watkins,
Sean Watkins, Chris Thile
Sugar Hill Records

Rehearsed, recorded and mixed in just six days with the help of producer Ethan Johns, MAS features a collection of songs sung by Toad the Wet Sprocket frontman Glen Phillips and elevated by the lush brilliance of the Grammy-winning uber pickers from Nickel Creek. The players on this collaborative project met through a mutual friend after mandolin virtuoso Thile expressed admiration for the unique vocal stylings of Phillips and the music of Toad the Wet Sprocket. Apparently Phillips knew of Nickel Creek and reciprocally held the group in high regard – and thus the name of the band was born. This debut has a quiet grace that takes a few spins to settle in. But repeated listening bears fruit as these thoughtful and sometimes quirky gems emit the welcome shine of soothing newgrass-inflected light rock. With talent like this it’s hard not to come up winning, though occasionally the vibe gets almost too mellow. That said, ditties such as “Comes a Time,” “Sake of the World,” “Be Careful,” “Somewhere Out There” and “Think About Your Troubles” recall the poignancy of Phillips’s bright vocals a la Toad, while the acoustic alchemy of Nickel Creek continues to dazzle.

Tony Furtado
These Chains

Former Boulder, Colorado-dwelling banjo-plucking jam grasser, Tony Furtado, now a resident of Los Angeles, highlights his new-found joy for songwriting on These Chains, comprising nine original nuggets and a dusting of old-timey traditionals. Collaborating with Nashville auteur Jim Lauderdale, longtime NRBQ guitarist Al Anderson and tunesmith Jules Shear, Furtado demonstrates the same tasteful instincts here that shone through on past efforts (such as his 1997 release Roll My Blues Away). What’s new is the welcome addition of his singing voice. Put an ear to “More and More,” “The Good Stuff,” “The Prisoner” and “Standing in the Rain.” Furtado counts Petty, Dylan and Ry Cooder among his influences. Careful attention to this platter yields a connection to such talent, yet allows room for the originality of a talented up-and-coming practitioner of the Americana-meets-pop rock genre. These Chains was recorded in Los Angeles and produced by Dusty Wakeman (Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam).

Joe Craven
Django Latino

Multi-instrumentalist Joe Craven has been coloring outside the musical box for decades and has logged playing time alongside luminaries from the late Jerry Garcia to the great Stephane Grappelli himself. Perhaps best known for his work with the David Grisman Quintet, Craven has been known to utilize everything from his cheeks to whale bones to find the right sound. So it’s only fitting that he tackle the quirky though brilliant and thoroughly innovative jazz of Django Reinhardt and Grapelli. Bringing his unique interpretive skills to bear, Craven smokes from start to finish on Latino, lending his eclectic musicalilty to 14 fetching takes on Hot Club fare ranging from the Puerto Rican influences of “Minor Swing” to the fiery Spanish flamenco stylings of “Swing 39.” This is Gypsy jazz as seen through the lens of Latin America and it’s a pleasure.

Chris Thile

Chris Thile can bring a mandolin to life like few others, but when it comes to writing pop-inflected light rock he’s hit or miss. Unfortunately in the case of Deceiver, Thile often finds himself falling short of the mark. His lyrics are too often cute and replete with saccharine sentimentality. Despite clever arrangements (nifty tempo changes and acoustic-to-electric switcheroos such as piano and violin accompaniment giving way to electric riffing) only a few of these ambitious ditties merit much attention. Maybe it’s a taste thing, yet this outing feels jumbled and contrived. Deceiver’s brightest moments come in the form of Thile’s well-acclaimed mandolin playing and ocassional willingness to take risks “being the most memorable line. For the avid fans there’s
“On Ice.

– reviews originally appeared in Relix magazine or Denver’s Westword

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