Ten bluegrass albums that will change your world

Bluegrass might be the punk version of country.
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JOHN HARTFORD – Aereo-Plain – 1971

If Country Gentlemen opened the door for progressive bluegrass, John Hartford invited the hippies in. Hartford was an accomplished fiddle and banjo player, who could pay respect to the old-school masters. But he had the irreverence of a ‘60s rebel and was not afraid to have fun with the classics.

He had already cranked out a slew of albums for RCA in the late 60s when he moved to Warner’s for a pair of albums in the early ‘70s. Aereo-Plain, and its follow-up, Morning Bugle, were first-class efforts that failed to find a mainstream audience. They parted ways after those two releases, and Hartford spent the remainder of his career releasing albums through specialty label Flying Fish, and eventually through the label that bought them, Rounder Records.

Aereo-Plane shows Hartford in full force. He has a stellar cast around him, led by frequent collaborator, guitarist Norman Blake. He has classic throwbacks like Albert Brumley’s gospel-tinged “Turn Your Radio On”  and his own “Steamboat Whistle Blues,” which was new but sounded old.

And then he had those irreverent modern songs like “Holding” and “Up on the Hill Where Do the Boogie,” a pair of bluegrass scat songs that are about as much fun as you can have in a bluegrass song. He also mixes in a couple of instrumentals that show off the band. The layers of “Symphony Hall Rag” is another song that is both old as the hills and young as a Viet Nam protestor at her first demonstration.

Just before he died, some of Hartford’s music was featured in the biggest bluegrass album of the last 25 years – T Bone Burnett’s soundtrack for the Coen Brothers O Brother, Where Art Thou? Highly appropriate for a man who did so much to expose bluegrass to a new audience.