Progressive bluegrass, or ‘newgrass’ as it is sometimes called, is the genre in which, in my opinion, the most exciting advancements in contemporary American music are being made. While other genres that are currently capturing the imaginations of millions of people around the world (i.e. Trap, Country, Neo-Soul) have been affected heavily by the pitfalls of commercialism and the formulaic, progressive bluegrass has been quietly growing and developing into one of the most vibrant and varied genres in contemporary music, since its emergence in the early 1980s.
In brief, progressive bluegrass is an amalgamation of interesting musical ideas from all over the genre spectrum with bluegrass, a style of American folk music that is often heavily steeped in tradition. Progressive bluegrass musicians take the elements of that baggage which carry some sort of meaning (whether that be instrumentation, old-time melodies, an approach to improvisation, etc.), and use external musical tools, tricks and traditions to push those fundamental elements to their creative limits.
Often, the genre appeals to those who enjoy a sense of nostalgia and the pastoral in their music, but won’t settle for anything repetitive, formulaic or creatively stagnant. Here are five albums (most of them fairly recent, but one released in the genre’s earlier period) that I believe represent a fairly varied selection of the genre’s broad church of stylistic approaches:
Skip Hop and Wobble by Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenberg and Edgar Meyer (1993)
This album was one of the early collaborations between those considered to be progressive bluegrass superstars. Dobro player, Jerry Douglas and bassist, Edgar Meyer were both early innovators in the genre through their work with the supergroup, Strength in Numbers, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Guitarist Russ Barenberg was the most traditional of the three, but he was known as one of the most melodic players in bluegrass at the time, and was well-regarded for his virtuosity and creative approach to the instrument.
Skip Hop and Wobble is an eclectic album, bringing together three traditional bluegrass fiddle tunes (albeit with adventurous harmonic approaches) with a series of original instrumentals, with influences ranging from country and Appalachian folk music, to jazz and classical music. There’s a warmth to this record that is often missing with a lot of traditional bluegrass due to the harshness of instruments like the 5-string banjo and bluegrass fiddle, and the genres tendency towards very simplistic chord structures and bass lines. The warmth here comes from the considered approach to texture, Meyer’s unique approach to both bowed and plucked upright bass (a style heavily influential to the playing of a number of the bassists, and one cellist, included in this article), and the lengthier, measured journey between big, satisfying harmonic resolutions.
This album is also significant because it was one of the first recordings that proved newgrass had legs beyond New Grass Revival and Strength in Numbers – the two major progressive bluegrass projects of the time.
Rocket Science by Béla Fleck and the Flecktones (2011)
The other major progressive bluegrass group of the early 1990s was Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. This band expanded the genre in a completely different direction, thanks to banjo genius, Béla Fleck (an alumnus of both New Grass Revival and Strength in Numbers) and his fascination with odd instrumentation and jazz.
Rocket Science was the band’s final studio album before they took an indefinite hiatus from making new music together, but it’s also the album which best represents a complete overview of the band’s style. The Flecktones have had a variety of different line-ups over the years, with each permutation having its own distinct musical personality. The core band has always been Fleck on banjo, Victor Wooten on electric bass and Roy Wooten (AKA Futureman) on percussion and synthaxe drumitar (an instrument of his own invention). The band’s original fourth member was harmonica genius, Howard Levy, who left the band after their first two albums. Levy made his return on Rocket Science, and with him, came a renewed sense of stylist self-assurance that got a little lost in the years since his departure. Not to knock the work of saxophonists like Branford Marsalis, Paul McCandless and most notably Jeff Coffin, who filled out the quartet before Levy’s return, but they took the band in a clearer jazz direction, instead of the newgrass style the Flecktones were originally known for.
Rocket Science is characterised by its pastoral, folky melodies, augmented by funky bass and percussion grooves, jazz harmonies and, most significantly, odd time signatures. Tracks like ‘Falani’ and ‘Wolf Laurel’ revel in Fleck’s bluegrass origins, whilst ‘Life in Eleven’ and ‘Storm Warning’ celebrate the jazzier, jam band-esque influences of past band members, like Jeff Coffin, and Fleck’s hero and collaborator, Chick Corea. It’s Fleck and Co.’s best realised collection of compositions to date, and therefore quite fitting that it should be their last as a group. The Flecktones have the largest, most varied back catalogue of any progressive bluegrass band, and it’s all worth exploring, but Rocket Science captures the band’s essence most effectively, and is a creative pinnacle for both the Flecktones, and the genre as a whole.
A Dotted Line by Nickel Creek (2014)
Nickel Creek are perhaps the most widely recognised band in the newgrass world, having had significant mainstream success in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with their debut album as well as songs like ‘Spit on a Stranger’ (a Pavement cover) and ‘Smoothie Song’. They were, simply put, a pop trio with bluegrass sensibilities and instrumentation, and they used the virtuosity required in high level bluegrass to write music that was just a little headier than other pop or country music of the time. Unfortunately for fans of the young trio, after 15-odd years of writing, playing and recording together, the band went on hiatus in 2007 due to a feeling of creative stagnation, stresses in their personal lives and a particularly strenuous touring schedule.
Chris Thile (mandolin), Sara Watkins (fiddle) and Sean Watkins (guitar) spent the next seven years working on their own personal projects, before reuniting in 2014 for one more album and tour. A Dotted Line was that album, and it draws together the experiences the trio gained during their hiatus with their natural instincts for playing and writing together, for an end result of some of the most engaging, memorable songs in the band’s catalogue. Nickel Creek’s sound has the characteristic acoustic warmth of early newgrass bands, like Strength in Numbers, and the poppy vibrancy of prevalent early 2000s pop rock bands like Pavement, Green Day, and the Strokes. A Dotted Line brought a maturity that was lacking on their earlier records; the lyrics were more self-aware, the chord progressions were more sophisticated, and whilst the trio still make ample use of their insane instrumental chops, their uses feel more considered and substantial than they did during the flashier moments on the band’s earlier albums. This is a record that manages to be both smart and accessible – it pushes boundaries whilst demonstrating a respect and love for the traditions from which it grew.
Antifogmatic by Punch Brothers (2010)
Punch Brothers – the band Chris Thile went on to form during Nickel Creek’s hiatus – is arguably the most significant band in today’s progressive bluegrass scene. The band was initially formed in order to play an ambitious, four movement string quintet for bluegrass instruments by Thile, called ‘The Blind Leaving the Blind’, but after a short while playing together, Thile, Gabe Witcher (fiddle), Noam Pikelny (banjo), Chris Eldridge (guitar) and Greg Garrison (the bass player who was quickly succeeded by Edgar Meyer protégé, Paul Kowert) realised that this was a band; a project much bigger than one piece of music.
The quintet has been playing and recording together ever since and have embodied a more recent philosophy in progressive bluegrass – a marriage of folk and formal. The idea here is to fuse together the vibrancy of bluegrass and pop music with the discipline, complexity and formal structures of classical music and jazz, and that’s just what Punch Brothers did on their sophomore album, Antifogmatic. It was the band’s first record following the release of ‘The Blind Leaving the Blind’ on their debut recording, Punch, and the first with bassist, Paul Kowert.
Antifogmatic established the sound Punch Brothers became known for – quirky songwriting with long, winding, unpredictable chord sequences and melodies, unparalleled virtuosity and mind-blowing interplay that might just convince you of the existence of telepathy. The band’s influences are incredibly varied on this record, from the bluegrass giants of The Grand Ole Opry on tracks like ‘Rye Whiskey’, to art rock bands like Radiohead on ‘You Are’, to the linear story-telling of songwriters like Josh Ritter and Tom Brosseau on ‘Me and Us’ and ‘The Woman and the Bell’. Despite being able to clearly identify their influences, there is a clear sense of the band’s own identity that comes through on every track, thanks to Thile’s vocal writing, the spindly melodies and the awesomely dense instrumental writing.
Through their eclectic song writing style and instrumental interplay on Antifogmatic, Punch Brothers spawned a much clearer genre identity for newgrass, and an aesthetic that has carried over to newer projects like Hawktail, I’m With Her, Julian Lage & Chris Eldridge, and many more.
Build Me Up From Bones by Sarah Jarosz (2013)
Singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Sarah Jarosz is a member of a newer, younger generation of newgrass musicians. The young prodigy recorded her first album, Song Up In Her Head, while she was still in high school and became a protégé of the Punch Brothers, as well as Crooked Still’s Aoife O’Donovan, collaborating and performing frequently with both. These days she’s a seasoned veteran of the genre, has two Grammys under her belt and is a member of the all-star progressive bluegrass trio, I’m With Her, with Aoife O’Donovan and Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins.
Despite these recent accolades (all of which are hugely commendable and well deserved), Jarosz’s most beautiful, complete work is her 2013 album, Build Me Up From Bones. The core ensemble on the record is a truly stunning combination, comprised of Jarosz (vocals, octave mandolin, mandolin, guitar, banjo), Alex Hargreaves (fiddle), and Nathaniel Smith (cello, fiddle). The trio’s collective sound is warm and organic; perfectly complimenting Jarosz’s velvety, languid vocal style.
Build Me Up From Bones takes newgrass in more of a country-oriented direction, with a less frantic, more considered song writing style, where instrumental virtuosity is clearly present, but takes a back seat to the lyrical and emotional themes of the songs. The album takes advantage of its long, star-studded list of guest musicians – including Jerry Douglas, Aoife O’Donovan, Kate Rusby, Dirk Powell and Chris Thile – to deftly create a powerful atmosphere for each track, rather than to simply show off their instrumental prowess. Douglas’ dobro playing, for example, on the song ‘Dark Road’ provides a sweeping musical companion to the allegorical journey described by Jarosz in her poetic lyrics, and Thile’s mandolin playing on ‘Fuel the Fire’ adds an exhilarating, rhythmic drive to a song all about fuelling one’s passions.
Sarah Jarosz is one of the most vital and necessary voices in the current progressive bluegrass space, creating a bridge between the more accessible forms of Americana and the more experimental side of American acoustic music. Build Me Up From Bones put Jarosz on the radar of critics and audiences not reached by more esoteric newgrass acts, and opened the genre up to an even wider range of diverse musical voices.
If you are at all intrigued or fascinated by this kind of music, there are a few things to which you might want to pay attention:
Firstly, Chris Thile’s radio show on Minnesota Public Radio, Live From Here (which you can listen to/watch live, even if you don’t live in the US), on which he features the most exciting musicians in and around the genres of progressive bluegrass, country, jazz and contemporary classical music. There is a significant backlog of clips from the show on their YouTube channel.
Secondly, it is incredibly useful take note of all the individual musicians mentioned in this list, nearly all of whom have wonderful side projects for you to dive into (the various extra-curricular records by Punch Brothers’ Noam Pikelny, Chris Eldridge and Paul Kowert are excellent places to start). Like in jazz, it’s often really useful to follow the careers of progressive bluegrass sidemen when you’re looking for new music in the genre.
Finally, if you’re lucky enough to live in an area where these musicians frequently visit on tour, do yourself a favour and go to see them play live. A significant chunk of the up and coming musicians in the genre frequently perform as support acts to the musicians listed above. Sarah Jarosz, for example, supported Punch Brothers on their last visit to London back in 2015. If you keep an open mind, you’ll be rewarded with some really meaningful musical experiences, as this genre has a lot to offer.