Ten bluegrass albums that will change your world

Bluegrass might be the punk version of country.
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In the early days, there was no need for a descriptor. It was just “music.” The music that grew naturally out of the environment, played on homemade instruments and using the rhythms and the stories that had been passed down generation by generation. It certainly wasn’t highbrow like opera or even broadly popular like music hall. If people ever did need a label, they just named it for where it had come from. They called it mountain music.

As with so many indigenous art forms, it took an outsider to ignite interest. In this case, a Brit named Cecil Sharp began traveling to those mountains in the 1910s and recording the music. The emergence of radio exposed the sound to a wider audience and resulted in a catchier, albeit more pejorative name – hillbilly music.

Eventually, it did grow in stature, as music fans began to recognize the virtuosity of the best musicians and the authenticity of the expression. Festivals began cropping up. So did another new name. But in the mid-1950s, it was known as bluegrass.

10 bluegrass albums that are not to be missed

If you’re not a bluegrass fan, the most important names in the genre may occupy some distant recess in your memory. They may sound familiar but you can’t match that name with their music. I’m here to help rectify that, for those who are interested. Because this is a crucial part of American history, and current purveyors are reaching far beyond the traditional roots of mountain music, while never losing sight of those origins.

Bluegrass, be it traditional or progressive, tells great stories, and it tells them in a way that almost forces you to tap your toes and sing along. Modern progressive banjo player Kyle Tuttle summed up the compelling dichotomy at the heart of so much great bluegrass. The lyrics, he says, often tell stories of tragedy. But the music is impossibly energized. Somewhere in the middle of it all, you find a genuine American art form, whether you call it lowbrow hillbilly, or the more modern highbrow Americana.

It’s all bluegrass to me. Here are ten seminal albums from the early days to the present that can serve as a good primer for those wishing to dive into the vital genre.