Just the other day while waiting for a class to begin at Middle Tennessee State University where I am currently a student, I was talking to a friend about how long ago the “90s” seem. I realized this a few years ago when I first heard the phrase “back in the 90s” used. I suppose the span of time seems larger to people like my friend and I who were both born in the early 90s; nevertheless, 1990 was a whole 25 years ago. After this conversation, I began thinking about all the great Bluegrass albums that came out of the 90s and how much I still listen to and love them. The “new” sounds of Bluegrass music that were born in the 1990s provided much of the inspiration for the more modern Bluegrass we hear today. In addition, nods to tradition found in recorded Bluegrass from this era provided a musical link between the founding fathers of the music and the members of the “super talent” generation that powers the genre today. With that in mind, I compiled this “my top picks” list of my three favorite Bluegrass albums of the 1990s based not only on their popularity, but also the continuing influence that I perceive them to have and how much I still enjoy them. This list is certainly open to change as other albums come to my mind or I’m introduced to new music.
#1 California Traveler (1991)
Sugar Hill Records SUG-CD-3803
A group of west coast super musicians, Byron Berline (fiddle/mandolin), John Hickman (banjo), Dan Crary (guitar), John Moore (mandolin), and Steve Spurgin (bass) came together for their first and only album Traveler in 1991. The band won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Instrumental Group of the Year in 1991, 1992, and 1993. The album is a cohesive collection of exciting instrumentals, emotional ballads, and traditional songs that feature the bands amazing knack for creating intricate arrangements. Strong songwriter Steve Spurgin contributes four songs to the album. Highlight tracks include the exhilarating Byron Berline instrumental “Rocker Arm Reel,” “Traveler,” a completely re-imagined version of a traditional fiddle tune, Steve Spurgin’s “Walk In The Irish Rain,” and the band’s own version of the Bill Monore classic “Uncle Pen.” Several of the group members contribute lead vocals to the project. Instrumental mastery, tight and intricate arrangements, strong songwriting and soulful lead vocals make this album a 90s standout.
California Performing “Traveler” on American Music Shop in 1992
#2 Alison Krauss & Union Station Every Time You Say Goodbye (1992)
Rounder Records CD-0285
The influence of Alison Krauss and her band Union Station upon not only Bluegrass music but other genres as well is undeniable. Featuring the classic Union Station lineup of Alison, Adam Steffey, Ron Block, Barry Bales, and Tim Stafford, the album brought in a new era in the sound of Bluegrass music. It is a textbook for any aspiring Bluegrass musician and a classic for any fan’s collection. Its influences can be heard in nearly all current Bluegrass. Standout cuts include the title track, banjo instrumental “Cluck Old Hen,” Ron Block original “Shield of Faith,” and “Another Day Another Dollar,” written by future Union Station member Dan Tyminski. The album reached #75 on the Billboard Country Albums Chart, won a grammy for best Bluegrass album in 1993, and was IBMA’s album of the year for 1993. Every Time You Say Goodbye certainly presents some top notch 90s era Bluegrass.
Alison Krauss and Union Station performing “Every Time You Say Goodbye” recently. Though first recorded in 1992, this song continues to be popular among her fans.
#3 Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder Bluegrass Rules (1997)
Rounder Records 0801
Bluegrass Rules represents the first recording by music star Ricky Skaggs after his official departure from mainstream country music. You can read more about his departure from country by clicking here This recording is certainly a tip of the hat to the fathers of Bluegrass music. It features mostly traditional Bluegrass songs like “Get Up John,” “Little Maggie,” “Rawhide,” and “Riding On That Midnight Train” as well as a couple of new songs including the Skaggs original “Amanda Jewell.” The band featured bluegrass veterans Bobby Hicks (fiddle), Dennis Parker (fiddle/guitar), Marc Pruett (banjo), Paul Brewster (guitar), and Mark Fain (bass) and Bryan Sutton (guitar) at the time this fine record was made. Bluegrass Rules was certainly a strong announcement of Skaggs’ re-entrance into the Bluegrass genre.
Ricky Skaggs performing “Little Maggie” filmed the day before the release of Bluegrass Rules in 1997.
There were so many great Bluegrass recordings made during the 90s that I don’t have space here to give them each a mention. These are certainly some good ones. Please let me know what your favorite 90s Bluegrass albums are in the comments section!