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Man's Silhouette

30 Great
Bluegrass Songs  

Bluegrass music has struggled at times to find a real home in the perplexing genre that is Americana music. Yet in a way, it best personifies what is wonderful about this musical phenomenon. For its roots stem from the very beginning of American country music – derived from traditional English, Scottish and Irish tunes and spiced with African-American blues and jazz. Consequently, banjo, mandolin and fiddle are must-have instruments!


Bill Monroe is acknowledged as the father of the genre, the name being derived from his band the Blue Grass Boys and two of the genre’s greatest exponents, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, were indeed members of Monroe’s original group. Brothers Ralph and Carter Stanley soon emerged as contenders to the bluegrass throne and from there greats like Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury, Hazel Dickens, Peter Rowan, the Seldom Scene, Rhonda Vincent and John Hartford have flown the flag. However, it is probably the work of cross-genre artists like Jerry Garcia, Steve Earle, David Grisman, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Doc Watson, among others, who have broadened the popularity of this acoustic genre.


This selection is not based on polling or record sales, but rather the judgement of the Crossroads editorial team. Each artist is limited to three songs, but a single artist, e.g. Ralph Stanley, could appear several times as part of different musical combos.


I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home
Bill Monroe
(Written by Bill Monroe)

Bill Monroe was born in Kentucky, known as America’s bluegrass state. He named his early band His Blue Grass Boys. Critics called their music bluegrass. A simple equation!

Bill would humbly say: “I’m a farmer with a mandolin and a high tenor voice.”

The musical purity of “I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home” is simply subline. Monroe was an orphan at age 16, hence: But there’s no light in the window that shined long ago where I lived.  The song was a personal favourite of another bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley and there is a wonderful recording of Ralph inviting Bill onstage to perform the classic. Covers abound, among the best a live version by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.


            I'm on my way back to the old home
            That road winds on up the hill
            But there's no light in the window
            That shined long ago where I lived

            Soon my childhood days were over
            I had to leave my old home
            For dad and mother were called to heaven
            I was left in this world all alone


lyrics © BMG Rights Management


Foggy Mountain Breakdown 
Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys
(Written by Earl Scruggs)


Earl Scruggs is regarded as the greatest banjo player of all time. In fact, some critics say that Bill Monroe could not have invented bluegrass music without Scruggs, whose famous three-finger banjo picking style radically changed how the instrument was played. Scruggs joined Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys at age 21. He stayed only two-and-a-half years, seemingly tired of the touring schedule. When he left, he took guitarist and mandolinist Lester Flatt with him. They became Flatt & Scruggs and over 20 years were to record more than 50 albums and 25 singles. Their defining release was one of the all-time great country instrumentals. Scruggs was to name it “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”. It was to feature in the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde. A 2001 issue won Scruggs an overdue Grammy.


I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow
The Stanley Brothers
(Traditional: Arrangement by Carter Stanley)

The first commercial recording of this song is listed as 1928, though its origins go back long before then. Ralph and Carter Stanley learned the song from their father who performed it a cappella as a hymn. The brothers made their own arrangement, with a faster tempo when it was originally recorded in 1950. Carter was to copyright it as his own work. The song got broad appeal in 1959 when the brothers performed it at the Newport Folk Festival. And within two years all the big folkies of the day – Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Peter, Paul and Mary - had made recordings. Then at the start of another century, it was to receive its greatest exposure on the soundtrack of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, performed by Dan Tyminski, of Alison Krauss fame. But the bluegrass classic remains with The Stanley Brothers. 


            I am a man of constant sorrow
            I've seen trouble all my days
            I bid farewell to old Kentucky
            The place where I was born and raised


lyrics © Public Domain


I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow (Instrumental)
Norman Blake


In the original soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, there are five variations of “I am a Man of Constant Sorrow.” Two are used in the film, one in the music video and two in the album which was to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2002.

All versions are worthy of acclaim. But it is the instrumental treatment by legendary guitarist and mandolinist Norman Blake which stands the test of time. If there is any blue blood in country music, it seeps through Blake who has backed the likes of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, John Hartford, Kris Kristofferson and Joan Baez. Blake in fact scored two numbers in the commercial release of the soundtrack - his wonderful rendition of “You Are My Sunshine” is the opening song. But his true strength lies as a multi-instrumentalist. And there is no better example of his talent than on this track.


Reunion in Heaven
Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys

(Written by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs)


This is a classic example of how gospel fuses seamlessly with bluegrass through perfect harmonies. “Reunion in Heaven” is the closing track on one of the finest bluegrass albums of all time, Foggy Mountain Jamboree which also includes the instrumental classics “Earl’s Breakdown,” “Foggy Mountain Special” and “Flint Hill Special.” The 12 tracks were recorded between 1951-55  but the original album was not released by Columbia Records until 1957. There was no better accolade for “Reunion in Heaven” than when Ry Cooder declared it his “favourite American song of all time.” It has also been described as the perfect song to bring tears to the eye.


            So often down here we'll have a reunion
            Our loved ones and friends will be gathered around
            Some faces are missed they have gone home to heaven
            They will be there with Jesus till the trumpet shall sound


lyrics ©


Earl’s Breakdown
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band featuring Earl Scruggs
(Written by Earl Scruggs)


Earl Scruggs played a pivotal role in both the first two of the NGDB’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken series. In fact his son Randy, a musical figure in his own right, produced both Vol 2 & 3 of the trilogy. And this delightful romp sees father and son team up, with Earl at his very best on his five-string banjo. There is something infectious about this version, helped by some awesome fiddle playing by the legendary Vassar Clements who came to the attention of modern-day bluegrass fans largely through his participation in this project. The original “Earl’s Breakdown” was of course first recorded in 1951 with Earl’s long-standing partner Lester Flatt.


Precious Memories

Emmylou Harris

(Traditional: Arrangement by Emmylou Harris) 


While there is much to like of various versions, from the Stanley Brothers through to Bob Dylan - and even a wonderful rendition by Waylon Jennings - it is Emmylou Harris who stands above all on this haunting gospel classic. It is included in the stunning acoustic album Angel Band she produced with Emory Gory Jr under the stewardship of Paul Kennerley, her husband at the time. Like much of her work, Emmylou finds perfection in vocal harmonies. And who better to team up with than Vince Gill, perhaps the finest tenor voice in Nashville. Listen carefully to the chorus where Gill subtly adorns …

in the stillness of the midnight. Musical perfection.

            Precious memories, how they linger
            How they ever flood my soul
            In the stillness of the midnight
            Precious sacred scenes unfold


Precious Memories lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group


The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn
Ralph Stanley, The Clinch Mountain Boys featuring 

Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley (Written by Ralph Stanley)

Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys, so the story goes, turned up late to a gig one night, only to find the crowd being entertained by two school-age musicians, Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley. Bluegrass music would never be quite the same.  Both Ricky and Keith were soon recruited to join Stanley and co and featured in some of the finest bluegrass recordings ever made. One was a 1973 release of a dozen bluegrass gospel songs originally recorded by The Stanley Brothers. Suitably titled Sing the Gospel Echoes of The Stanley Brothers, the album is treasured by purists, if not for perhaps Ralph’s finest composition, “The Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn”. Ricky went on to join Ralph as a bluegrass legend, while Keith became a mainstream country star, but sadly died at only 33 after battling alcoholism.


            Like a shepherd out on the mountain
            A watching the sheep down below
            He's coming back to claim us
            Will you be ready to go

            The darkest hour is just before dawn
            The narrow way leads home
            Lay down your soul at Jesus' feet
            The darkest hour is just before dawn


lyrics © S.I.A.E. Direzione Generale, Trio Music Company, Fort Knox Music Co.


Blue Moon of Kentucky
Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys

(Written by Bill Monroe)

This is not only Bill Monroe’s signature song, but probably the most famous of the bluegrass genre. However, its fame stems not from the writer and original recording artist. It is all because of one person - the King of Rock ‘n Roll. The story goes that at an early Elvis Presley recording session at Sun Records, in July 1954, Sam Phillips was desperately looking for a B side to release with “It’s All Right.” During a short break in the studio, bass player Bill Black started singing “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” mocking Bill’s high voice. Elvis and guitarist Scotty Moore suddenly joined in ….  and the rest, as they say, is history! It would also end up in the recording repertoires of stars like Patsy Cline, Paul McCartney, John Fogerty etc. Monroe first broadcast the song on the Grand Ole Opry in August 1945. It was recorded for Colombia Records 12 months later and released in early 1947. Both Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were in the Blue Grass Boys at the time, with Flatt doing much of the vocals. However, Bill was the vocalist on this recording. It would be added to the U. S. Library of Congress National Recording Registry.  


            Blue moon of Kentucky keep on shining
            Shine on the one that's gone and proved untrue
            Blue moon of Kentucky keep on shining
            Shine on the one that's gone and left me blue


lyrics © Peermusic Publishing


Uncle Pen
Ricky Skaggs 
(Written by Bill Monroe)

“Uncle Pen” really belongs to Bill Monroe. But somehow Ricky Skaggs - a generation apart from the father of bluegrass – made it his own when he turned it into a sensational country #1 hit in 1984. Monroe wrote the song about his uncle James Pendleton Vandiver (Uncle Pen) who was born shortly after the American Civil War. Bill’s parents were both dead by the time he was 16 and Bill spent some of his early life with Uncle Pen who, though crippled, made money playing fiddle at local dances and social events around Rosine, Kentucky. Sometimes, Bill would accompany him on either guitar or mandolin.  Monroe unveiled a monument in honour of Uncle Pen at the Rosine Cemetery in 1973. And he further honoured his memory by playing the part of “Uncle Pen” in the music video for Ricky’s Country Boy album. Skaggs’ version spent 13 weeks in the country charts and would further establish him as one of the great successors to Monroe.


            Late in the evening, about sundown,
            High on the hill, an' above the town,
            Uncle Pen played the fiddle, Lord, how it rang,
            You could hear it talk, you could hear it sing


lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc


Kentucky Waltz  
Bill Monroe
(Written by Bill Monroe)

This was to be Bill Monroe most successful release, peaking at number three on the Country & Western charts, though it hit #1 the C & W charts for Eddie Arnold in 1951.

It is assumed that Monroe first cut the song in a recording session with Colombia Records in Chicago in late 1946, the same period which produced “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” At the time, both Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were members of Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys.

            We were waltzing that night in Kentucky 
            Beneath the beautiful harvest moon
            And I was the boy who was lucky
            But it all ended too soon
            As I sit here alone in the moonlight
            I see your smiling face
            And I long once more for your embrace
            In that beautiful Kentucky waltz


lyrics © Peermusic Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC


Will The Circle Be Unbroken
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band 
(Traditional: Arrangement A.P.Carter) 

There were three versions of this classic in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s famous musical series by the same name. There is great debate among critics as to which of the first two renditions should rank the best. The contest comes down to Mother Maybelle Carter, who takes lead on the NGDB original, against her son-in-law Johnny Cash who leads version two, recorded in 1989, eleven years after Maybelle’s passing. And the winner is .. Maybelle, who also plays autoharp. It was, after all, the Carter Family who introduced this song to the music world. Among the music greats adding both vocal and musical support are Jimmy Martin, Roy Acuff, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs. A roll of honour if ever there was one.


            I was standing by my window
            On one cold and cloudy day
            When I saw that hearse come rolling
            For to carry my mother away

            Will the circle be unbroken
            By and by, Lord, by and by
            There's a better home a-waiting
            In the sky, Lord, in the sky


lyrics © Peermusic Publishing


You’re Drifting Too Far From the Shore 
John Starling & Ricky Skaggs 
(Written by Charles  E. Moody)

The list of artists who have recorded “Drifting Too Far From the Shore” reads like a Who’s Who of whatever genre of country music you choose. But oddly enough, the man who wrote it, legendary gospel songwriter Charles E. Moody, never got the chance to record it - even though he was a member of a popular Georgia string band in the 1920’s. It is not surprising that such a high-profile bluegrass artist as Ricky Skaggs would himself have several recordings under his belt – in many line-ups.  Choosing one is a huge ask.  One version which gained traction was in the 2008 compilation release Ricky Skaggs – Best of the Sugar Hill Years. But in fact, it first emerged on John Starling’s star-studded 1980 album Long Time Gone, with Starling sharing vocals with Skaggs, who, of course, has with him his  trusty mandolin. Mike Auldridge, on dobro, completes the trio.


            Out on the perilous deep,

            Where dangers silently creep,

            And storms so violently sweep,

            You are drifting too far from the shore

            Drifting too far from the shore,

            You are drifting too far from the shore, peaceful shore

            Come to Jesus today, let him show you the way,

            You are drifting too far from the shore.


 lyrics © Sony/atv Acuff Rose Music, Extreme Music Library Ltd


The Fields Have Turned Brown
Red Allen & David Grisman - featuring Jerry Garcia
& Vassar Clements (Written by Carter Stanley)

This outstanding rendition of the Carter Stanley classic turned up as an alternate track on the Bluegrass Reunion, Deluxe Edition released in 2019. It features the last studio recordings by bluegrass legend Red Allen before he died in 1993. The sessions came about when mandolin-master David Grisman arranged a reunion with Allen, who had given him his first big break in bluegrass. The pair were joined by Herb Pedersen (banjo), Jim Buchanan (fiddle) and Jim Kerwin (bass). And just to give it “supergroup” status, Jerry Garcia joined the sessions – his first bluegrass performance since Old & In The Way – as Allen had been one of his heroes. There are two versions of “The Fields have turned Brown” on Deluxe Edition. The one listed is track 18 where Garcia takes lead vocals and Vassar Clements joins with some majestic fiddle playing.


            Son don't go astray was what they both told me
            Remember that love for God can be found
            But now they're both gone this letter just told me
            For years they've been dead, the fields have turned brown


lyrics © Peer International Corporation


Hills of Home
Hazel Dickens
(Written by Hazel Dickens)

Hazel Dickens was what you might describe as an-all-kind-of singer! There are references to her as a protest singer, a traditional singer, even a feminist singer (certainly one of the first).  Whatever! But one title that did stick was “First Lady of Bluegrass.” Her early recordings – often described as old-timey music - were in partnership with Alice Gerrard, one-time wife of folk icon Mike Seeger. It was not until the early eighties that Hazel’s solo albums started to emerge and with them her own distinctive style of message music. The sentimental “Hills of Home,” off her 1987 album It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song, proved to be a signature song, helped by the fact that it reflected her lost childhood in - and the forgotten people of - the Appalachian Mountains. Among the top artists backing Hazel are bass supremo Roy Huskey and Jerry “Mr Dobro” Douglas.


            There ain't much that's left here that ain't all run down
            Gone all the echoes of old familiar sound
            Families are scattered, parted, and gone
            Left a lot of good things to wither away back home


lyrics © Happy Valley Music BMI


Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow
Ricky Skaggs & Tony Rice  
(Written by Bradley Kincaird)

Purists might argue that the Carter Family’s 1927 version of this famed traditional song deserves inclusion here. But it is Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice who best put bluegrass into a song archived by the University of Missouri early as 1906 and since recorded by countless big names. It is the opening track to a quite superb 1980 album Skaggs & Rice - two of the great exponents of old-timey music. “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow” not only best demonstrates the wonderful high lonesome harmony of the pair but also lays bare their inventive finger-picking – Skaggs on mandolin and Rice flatpicking guitar.

            My heart is sad and I am lonely
           For the only one I love
           When shall I see her, oh no, never
           Till we meet in heaven above.

            Oh bury me beneath the willow
           Under the weeping willow tree
           So she will know where I am sleeping
           And perhaps she’ll weep for me.

Lyrics © Peermusic Publishing


Steve Earle And The Del McCoury Band (Written by Steve Earle)


If any doubters remain as to the musical genius that is Steve Earle, all they need do is listen to the traditional album The Mountain, his first real foray into bluegrass. Sure, he teamed up with one of the best bluegrass outfits at the time, the Del McCoury Band, but it was Earle who penned all 14 tracks. He made the 1999 album as a tribute to Bill Monroe who died three years earlier. One critic best summed up: “The mood varies widely from triple-time breakdown to bluesy shuffles to meditative waltzes, but there’s not a missed note or strained chorus anywhere.”  The Celtic-fused “Dixieland” personified all that is wonderful about bluegrass, and indeed the McCoury’s  …  and now Earle.


            I am Kilrain of the 20th Maine
            And I damn all gentlemen
            Whose only worth is their father's name
            And the sweat of a workin' man
            Well we come from the farms 
            And the city streets and a hundred foreign lands
            And we spilled our blood in the battle's heat
            Now we're all Americans


lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group, BMG Rights Management


Lonesome L.A. Cowboy
Old & In The Way 

(Written by Peter Rowan)


On October 1 and 8, 1973, the newly-formed bluegrass supergroup Old & In The Way - Jerry Garcia (banjo), Peter Rowan (guitar), David Grisman (mandolin), Vassar Clements (fiddle), John Kahn (string bass) - performed at a place called The Boarding House in San Francisco. The two concerts were recorded by eight microphones (four per channel) and mixed live onto a stereo Nagra tape recorder. The tapes ended up holding one of the most valuable recordings of bluegrass music. In reviewing The Complete Shows, Jesse Jarnow nicely summed up in Relix: “While it was Peter Rowan’s sweet silvery holler and the quintet’s close dynamics that sold the Stinson Beach supergroup to audiences, it was Jerry Garcia’s presence that sold the band’s live LP to hippies, and—in turn—linked banjos to beardos forevermore.” Of the quintet, only Rowan and Grisman have survived. But the group’s legacy is musical gold-dust. It is Rowan’s whimsical take on drug-fueled Californian musicians of the 1970’s, “Lonesome L.A. Cowboy,” that stands at the head of a simply subline collection of bluegrass songs.


         I'm just a lonesome L. A. cowboy,

         Hangin' out, hangin' on

         To your window ledge, callin' your name

         From midnight until dawn

         I been smokin' dope, snortin' coke,

         Tryin' to write a song

         Forgettin' everything I know

‘        Til the next line comes along

         Forgettin' everything I know

         ‘Til the next line comes along


lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group


The White Dove
The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys
(Written by Carter Stanley)

Fresh out of U.S. Army, Virginian brothers Carter and Ralph Stanley resumed their musical careers in 1946 and formed The Stanley Brothers and the Clinch Mountain Boys to play the music made popular by the Monroe Brothers. In 1949 they scored a contract with Columbia Records. One of the first songs recorded for Columbia was “The White Dove”, written by Carter. It would become a bluegrass standard and be recorded by several big names across all the genres of country music. After Carter’s death in 1966, Ralph formed various versions of the Clinch Mountain Boys.  The 1971 formation, which included Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley, did a wonderful version of what was now “White Dove.” But the pure original gets listed here.


            White dove will mourn in sorrow
            The willows will hang their heads
            I'll live my life in sorrow
            Since mother and daddy are dead


lyrics © Peermusic Publishing, Warner Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group


Angel Band
Emmylou Harris
(Traditional: Arrangement by Emmylou Harris)

Yet another gospel standard which has been covered by various artists, from The Stanley Brothers to the Monkees. But the Emmylou Harris cover - on her wonderful gospel/bluegrass album by the same name - raises the bar few can reach on what is essentially a beautiful hymn. The song originated from a poem written in the 19th century by Jefferson Hascall. It gained world-wide prominence in 2000 when The Stanley Brothers’ version was included on the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack album. But nothing can compete with the treatment given by Harris in 1987, helped by the likes of Vince Gill, Carl Jackson and her co-producer Emory Gordy.


            My latest sun is sinking fast, my race is nearly run
            My strongest trials now are past, my triumph has begun
            O come Angel Band, come and around me stand
            O bear me away on your snow white wings to my immortal home


lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc


Catfish John
Old & In the Way 
(Written by Allen Reynolds and Bob McDill)

Jerry Garcia took a particular liking to “Catfish John”. He made countless recordings of the song, each featuring a distinctive musical arrangement and with a different assortment of musicians. The rendition which qualifies best as bluegrass was released in 1975 though originally recorded live in 1973, just a year after the song was originally released both by co-writer Bob McDill and country artist Johnny Russell. It was made with Old & In the Way, regarded as the original bluegrass supergroup, helped somewhat by Garcia playing banjo and on vocals. The song was revitalised somewhat in 2002 when Alison Krauss joined The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band for a popular version on Volume 3 of Will The Circle Be Unbroken.

    Mama said don't go near that river
   Don't be hanging round old Catfish John
   Come the morning I'd always be there
   Walking in his footsteps in the sweet Delta dawn

lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group


Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms 
Doc and Merle Watson
(Written by Lester Flatt) 

The first known recording of this traditional song is in the early 1930’s, but Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, with the Foggy Mountain Boys, put it on the bluegrass map when they released it as a single in December 1951. Since then, writing attribution has remained with Flatt. Countless versions were to follow. But it is the more folky treatment by Doc and Merle Watson which stands the test of time. It is the opening track on the father and son’s second studio album, Ballads from Deep Gap, released in 1967. The pair were backed by Eric Weissberg, on bass. Though only 18 when the song was recorded, Merle’s reputation as one of the great flatpicking guitar players is already evident. And his dad’s harmonica makes this treatment a song truly for the ages.


            Honey where was you at last Friday night

            When I was laid down in jail

            You’re walkin’ the streets with another man

            Wouldn’t come down and go my bail

            Roll in my sweet baby’s arms

            Roll in my sweet baby’s arms

            Goin’ to lay round the shack ‘til the mail train comes back

            And I’ll roll in my sweet baby’s arms


Lyrics © Peermusic Publishing


The Mountain  
Steve Earle And The Del McCoury Band
(Written by Steve Earle)

The title-track off Steve Earle’s classic 1999 bluegrass album demonstrates Earle’s extraordinary ability to manufacture a particular genre of music with authority and musical perfection. Much credit, of course, must go to Del McCoury and his boys who had to be at their very best coping with an at times gruff vocalist who had no pretentions of being a traditional bluegrass singer. But it all works so well, aided by the harmonies of the McCoury clan. Much was made of a subsequent falling out between the two parties, but it should not detract from what this partnership left behind.

            There's a hole in this mountain and it's dark and it's deep 
            And God only knows all the secrets it keeps 
            There's a chill in the air only miners can feel 
            There're ghosts in the tunnels that the company sealed

lyrics © EMI Music Publishing, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, Universal Music Publishing Group


My Better Years
Seldom Scene
(Written by Hazel Dickens)

There was more than 40 years of music on display in the wonderful Long Time .. Seldom Scene album produced for Smithsonian Folkways in 2014. Most of the songs had been previously released in various forms over the years. But this was the first time this iconic bluegrass band had recorded My Better Years, the raw, emotional song Hazel Dickens wrote about her ex-husband. Lead vocals are by Dudley Connell, who played with Dickens through the years, and the band’s powerful rendition is a wonderful tribute to the woman many regard as the first-lady of bluegrass music. Go to You Tube for a must-see video of this recording.


         But I’ll try not to blame you

         I’ll try not to shame you

         All I can do now is wish you well

         But if you should need a friend

         I’ll be there till the end

         Just don’t ask me to love you again


lyrics © Happy Valley Music BMI


Mama’s Hungry Eyes

Merle Haggard
(Written by Merle Haggard)

Merle’s 2007 album The Bluegrass Sessions – his 61st studio release - somehow flew under the radar of most music critics. Bluegrass has never really been regarded as Merle’s rhythm, despite his multi-dimensional style. Yet this album could claim to be among the finest collection of his work, helped by some of the best Nashville musicians on offer, including Marty Stuart, Rob Ickes, Carl Jackson and Alison Krauss. Stuart gives a wonderful insight into the recording session in the album’s liner notes: “ …. I went into Merle’s vocal booth and my exact words to him were, ‘Hag, in general, bluegrass suffers from the same thing country suffers from these days, it ain’t got the blues no more. Bluegrass music needs your soul and your songs.’ I asked him to come back out onto the floor where the band had originally gathered around him. He did and I said, ‘Watch this.” I asked him to sing “Mama’s Hungry Eyes”. He did and the band immediately responded. Heaven opened up and the music returned.” It sure did, helped by Krauss and Jackson on backing vocals.


            A canvas covered cabin in a crowded labor camp

            Stand out in this memory I revive

            My Daddy raised a family there with two hard working hands

            And tried to feed my mama’s hungry eyes


lyrics © Sony/ATV Tree Publishing,BMI


I Am Weary (Let Me Rest)
The Cox  Family

(Written by Peter V. Kuykendall & Pete Roberts)

The Cox Family had won a Grammy and had a very loyal following in southern bluegrass/country  music before producer T-Bone Burnett placed them on a global stage in 2000 by including “I Am Weary (Let Me Rest)” in the soundtrack for the wacky blockbuster movie O Brother Where Art Thou. The family group were to become one of the star acts of the Down From the Mountain tour which featured some of the artists from the original movie soundtrack. “I Am Weary (Let Me Rest)” best demonstrates the beautiful harmonies the family was famous for, with mandolin-playing Suzanne taking the lead vocals and father Willard, the family patriarch, harnessing the backups. Shortly after the O Brother phenomenon, Willard was injured in a car accident and the family band’s influence waned. Willard died in 2019, aged 82.


            Kiss me mother kiss your darlin'
            Lay my head upon your breast
            Throw your loving arms around me
            I am weary let me rest


lyrics © Wynwood Music Co. Inc.


Gentle On My Mind
John Hartford
(Written by John Hartford)

No one best summed up John Hartford than Emmylou Harris, when at the time of his death in 2001, she told Rolling Stone: “He was a kind of the quintessential musician; a great musician and storyteller with a great sense of humour.”  He earned the nickname “Riverboat John” because of his knowledge of the Mississippi River lore – he spent many summers working as a pilot on the Mississippi, Tennessee and Illinois rivers. He started playing banjo and the fiddle as a teenager and made a number of recordings in the early sixties. But he hit the jackpot in 1967 with the release of Earthwords and Music, a very appealing album which included the song “Gentle on My Mind.” The story goes that he wrote it after watching Julie Christie appear in the film Dr Zhivago. “I wanted to drink Julie Christie’s bathwater,” he told a fellow-musician. Ricky Skaggs would describe “Gentle On My Mind” as John’s “grand slam.” Every great artist, from Glen Campbell to Frank Sinatra, wanted to sing it. While Hartford’s original included his trusty banjo, it is not as dominant as in the wonderful all-acoustic version listed here. It appeared in a 2019 compilation release Backroads, Rivers & Memories: The Rare & Unreleased John Hartford. This rendition – and indeed the compilation album - nicely reflects his unique vocal style and mastery of the banjo. In 1968 “Gentle On My Mind” netted four Grammys, two going to Hartford.


            I dip my cup of soup back from the gurgling crackling cauldron in some train yard
            My beard ruff and a cold pile
            And a dirty hat pulled low across my face
            Through cupped hands, 'round a tin can
            I pretend to hold you to my breast and find
            That you're wavin' from the back roads
            Ever smiling, ever gentle on my mind


lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC


I’m Not Over You
Rhonda Vincent
(Written by Carl Jackson & Melba Montgomery)


Few have better popularised bluegrass music in recent years than Rhonda Vincent. Her self-produced 2001 album The Storm Still Rages cemented her return to bluegrass after her foray into mainstream country. It was a solid mix of contemporary and traditional bluegrass songs. And there were some country covers with singalong acoustic arrangements. The best example was “I’m Not Over You,” the Carl Jackson/Melba Montgomery composition from which the album title is gleaned. The song, one of three non-charting singles from the album, has Rhonda at full throttle and personifies the vigorous – somewhat ageless – approach she has towards bluegrass music.


            I'm not over you
            The storm still rages
            The waves of pain remind me
            That we're through
            I'm slowly drowning
            In a sea of endless heartbreak
            I'm going under
            'Cause I'm not over you


lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group


Just Load The Wagon
Junior Sisk
(Written by J.R. Satterwhite)

In his website, Harry “Junior” Sisk is described as a recording artists with a rich and compelling history in traditional bluegrass music. He lived up to the billing in 2020 with a well-received album Load The Wagon which one critic described as “something traditional but fresh, something old but new.” There was no better example of stripped-down freshness than in the title track. It is simply a brilliant rendition of the J.R. Satterwhite standard, composed from the old Grandpa adage: “Don’t worry ‘bout the mule, just load the wagon.” To the fore is the clawhammer banjo, played by Tony Mabe, sitting nicely alongside the fiddle of Douglas Bartlett.


            My grandpa had a saying that I got from him no doubt

            One day he had me loading hay ‘til I was darn worn out

            I said if I load any more this mule will be zig-zagging

            He said don’t worry about the mule, now you just load the wagon


lyrics © JMSR Publishing, ASCAP


I’m Thinking Tonight Of My Blue Eyes
Jimmie Dale Gilmore with The Wronglers
(Traditional: Arrangement by A.P. Carter)


If Jimmie Dale Gilmore had been born in the Appalachian Mountains instead of the flat lands of West Texas, there’s every chance he would have been a dyed-in-the-wool bluegrass legend. He has instead adopted the Americana genre, which fits nicely with the likes of The Flatlanders, Dave Alvin and which-ever musical outfit he may be adorning at the time. One association which worked nicely was with The Wronglers in 2011 when together they produced the bluegrass/oldtime-tinged album Heirloom Music. The seven-piece San Francisco band provide instant acoustic harmony with Gilmore's distinctive high voice on such classics as Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen,” and Leadbelly’s “In The Pines.” But the best treatment is reserved for the A.P. Carter discovery “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes.” Gilmore and The Wronglers transform this from a hillbilly folkie to a sophisticated bluegrass weepie.


            When the cold, cold grave shall enclose me
           Will you come here and shed just one tear
           And say to the strangers around you
           A poor heart you have broken lies here
           Oh, I'm thinking tonight of my blue eyes
           Who is sailing far over the sea
           Yes, I'm thinking tonight of her only
           And I wonder if she ever thinks of me



lyrics © Peermusic Publishing



The dates accompanying each album refer to the year of release.


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Any factual errors and omissions are regretted.

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