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Young Artists Bring In A Winter Harvest Of New Bluegrass Albums

Kyle Tuttle, center with banjo, celebrated his new album Labor Of Lust with a show on Saturday at East Side Bowl. His band boss Molly Tuttle from Grammy-winning Golden Highway came by to pick and sing, as did Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, here fiddling with Phoebe Hunt.

One doesn’t naturally think of winter as a bluegrass season. It’s awfully hard to hold a pick with a frozen hand after all. But the community keeps things warm with events like the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music In America, which met as usual at the end of January at the Sheraton Airport hotel in Nashville and handed out a load of awards (seven!) to the rhinestone-bedecked Kody Norris Show. Coming up soon are big annual events Wintergrass, an indoor festival in Bellevue, WA and Winter WonderGrass, a jam-friendly event proudly held outdoors in ski country (this year at Steamboat in Colorado March 1-3).

But we fans who love to stay home in the winter aren’t left out in the cold, because of a bumper crop of excellent new albums. Mostly by women and younger artists, they tell a gratifying story about where today’s music is going, and we’ve been reveling in these neo-traditional sounds over on The Old Fashioned (Saturdays 9 am / Tuesdays 8 pm).

Top of my mind is banjo wildman Kyle Tuttle’s new Labor Of Lust, because it arrived last Friday, and I attended his album release celebration show at East Side Bowl on Saturday night. The cast of friends on stage told a story about Kyle’s influence in the scene and his triumphant 2023, which he spent touring the nation with Molly (no relation) Tuttle and Golden Highway, before ultimately sharing in the Bluegrass Album Grammy Award for their 2023 release City Of Gold. From that group, Molly and fiddler Bronwyn Keith-Hynes made guest appearances on Saturday, while Dominic Leslie held down mandolin duties in the band, as he does on Kyle’s new album.

The music reflects Kyle’s proud identity as a “jamgrass stoner banjo player,” but that doesn’t mean that he’s a slacker. His picking is precise, inventive and adventurous, plus he writes fun and tricky tunes, such as the angular “Scorch On The Porch,” rendered here with electronically enhanced banjo tones and drums. With a similar fusion approach (I once joked he should call his style Monroehavishnu, for you jazz-rock heads out there), Tuttle brings the rewarding 8-minute journey “Two Big Hearts.” Tuttle’s songwriting should sound attractive to fans of Billy Strings, as when the bluegrass dream of a cabin on a hill is transformed into a “Trailer In Boulder Canyon,” and a personal confessional about enduring some setbacks and losses hits home in the opener “Hard To Say.” The album cover ostentatiously sets bluegrass graphic design back a few decades, but Kyle’s sound and sensibility helps the music roll like Earl into the mid 21st century.

Among the most anticipated releases of 2024 has been Sister Sadie’s No Fear, which dropped on Jan. 26. That’s because the most accomplished all-female band in the banjo business has been refreshed since being named IBMA Entertainers of the Year in 2020 and since releasing their last music in 2018. New are MTSU graduate Jaelee Roberts (a fantastic young voice in the genre) and Dani Flowers (also a guitar-playing singer), plus bass player Maddie Dalton. Anchoring the band’s story are founding members Deanie Richardson (fiddle) and Gena Britt (banjo). This music hews more to the bluesy founding sound than Mr. Tuttle, though its minor modal opening song “Willow” dabbles in drums. More typical of the vibe is the swinging honky tonk lament “If We Ain’t Drinking, Then We’re Fighting” with a lush three-part harmony chorus. One of the singles that stirred up interest here during a long ramp-up was the clever “Well,” composed by bluegrass star Becky Buller and Craig Market, sung in a rich lower register by Gena. It closes with a guest turn by Ashley McBryde on “Ode To The Ozarks,” which has a bit of a country grind. It’s the varied, well-written package we’ve been waiting for.

There’s always a youth brigade coming along in bluegrass, but 14-year-old East Tennessee native Wyatt Ellisis the most acclaimed mandolin prodigy to come along since at least Sierra Hull. And Hull was among Wyatt’s first teachers and boosters, having mentored him in recent years through the Tennessee Folklife Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program. Remarkably, Ellis didn’t get serious about the instrument until the pandemic, so most of his big bang progress and instruction took place online. Now out in real life, he’s shown he was ready, with a Grand Ole Opry debut and conspicuous support from Marty Stuart, Billy Strings, and others. On his debut Happy Valley, produced by polymath artist Justin Moses, Ellis picks his way with clarity and finesse through a dozen original instrumentals, including the burbling “Grassy Cove,” in a duet with Sierra. Guitarist Jake Workman accompanies Ellis on “Get Lost,” which sounds like a great 1990s Sam Bush number. Wyatt’s first inspiration Bobby Osborne made his mark on Wyatt’s style too, as mountain-infused numbers like “Johnson Mountain Blues” and “Sandy Gap” attest.

The Price Sisters also kept folks waiting a minute (since 2018) for their second full album, and those devoted to the deep story of bluegrass and the spirit of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard will be delighted by Between The Lines, out Feb. 16 from McCoury Music. It marks the first time Del McCoury’s family label has released non McCoury artists, with mandolinist Ronnie producing this moving old-school collection. Twin sisters Leanna and Lauren grew up in Ohio and took up fiddle and mandolin respectively, learning hard-edged music that continues today alongside East Tennessee band mates Conner Vlietstra on guitar, Trevor Holder on banjo, and Bobby Osborne II (son of THAT Bobby) on upright bass. The blood harmonies and distinctive full-bodied voices elevate the material. The sisters update and up-speed the old Red Foley ballad “Midnight” as a cracking album opener. I love the single “There’s A Song In There Somewhere,” an old Cowboy Jack Clement song that celebrates bluegrass culture with twin fiddles.

At her CD release show at the Station Inn a this month, Brit Taylor said she regards Patty Loveless’s Mountain Soul albums as nigh unto scripture in her reverence for country music. And if any young artist brings that versatile Patty magic from Kentucky to Nashville in our time it’s Taylor. Her voice is silky, weighty and spirited, and she writes excellent country songs about real stuff. Now she and her bass playing husband Adam Chaffins have done something audacious, turning her 2023 country album Kentucky Blue into 2024’s mountain soulful Kentucky Bluegrassed, rearranging most of its songs and adding a few more to fit an all-acoustic setting. “No Cowboys” surprises with Mexicali horns (she did this at the Station Inn with audience plants who stood up in mid-song to play the solos - to great delight). “Saint Anthony” is a new addition here that takes us into a story with sparkling details and a sense of place. The title cut, which comes off even more mournful and richly lonesome than the country version, has quickly become one of my favorite sides of the year. We bluegrass fans may now not let Brit go back.

Missy Raines may have the most compelling storyline behind her new album on this list, because she’s the veteran among this crew with ten IBMA Bass Player of the Year awards to her name. But I’m about to interview her for a full feature, so she gets a respectful nod here to introduce her album Highlander, just out on Feb. 9. It represents a pivot after years leading the jazz-grass-songwriter outfit The New Hip to her first outright bluegrass band as a leader. That would be Allegheny, featuring Ben Garnett on guitar, Eli Gilbert on banjo, Ellie Hakanson on fiddle, and Tristan Scroggins on mandolin. The album is rich with tales of trains, mines, and lost loves. More to come on this one.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org