I’ve been meaning to put together a list of my favorite all-instrumental recordings for some time now, and finally found some time to get it done. I’ve heard a lot of acoustic music over the years, and the list below represents my personal highlight reel.
Tune: The Lights of Home
Album: Drive, Bèla Fleck
The Lights of Home is one of two tracks from this incredible album on my list (I had to restrain myself from including more). Drive, in general, and The Lights of Home in particular, opened my eyes to how flat-out gorgeous acoustic instrumental music could be. Expertly played by the all-star lineup on this album (Jerry Douglas, Mark O’Connor, Stuart Duncan, Sam Bush, Tony Rice and Mark Schatz), this track is about as far as it gets from the sort of tune you’ll hear in your neighborhood bluegrass jam. This is a complex, lyrical musical composition that evokes emotion the way the best classical pieces can.
Tune: Texas Red
Album: The Telluride Sessions, Strength In Numbers
This is “New Acoustic” music in all its glory, brought to you by the instrumental masters of a generation. Strength In Numbers was a supergroup consisting of Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bèla Fleck, Mark O’Connor and Edgar Meyer. An album of all original music, the members trade off song authorship throughout the album. Some of the stuff here is a bit too ‘experimental’ for my taste, but Texas Red jumps out as a stroke of genius.
The opening phrase, in addition to sounding like a fanfare written for mandolin, is something a mando player can really appreciate – an ingenious use of octave doubling to emphasize that first held note (those aren’t as easy to emphasize when you don’t have a bow to lean on!). But technical issues aside, I think the reason this song hooked me is that it manages to marry a very modern-sounding ‘A’ section with a ‘B’ section that settles into a more traditional rollicking-along bluegrass grove, and then somehow brings those elements together in the ‘C’ section. And, after all this fun happens, you get some incredible free-form soloing worthy of these masters.
Tune: Fisher’s Hornpipe
Album: Into the Cauldron, Mike Marshall & Chris Thile
This is an old Scottish fiddle tune that is popular among mandolin players. But never has it been done like this. There are no two finer mandolinists on the planet than these two, and they let their chops show here, but it’s always about playing musically, even when “showing off” a bit. But my favorite thing about this recording isn’t the rapid-fire histrionics in the middle – it’s the way these two guys can play together as if they were sharing one brain. They split phrases (Chris starts, Mike finishes, then vice versa), with absolutely seamless transitions. When they play together in two-part harmony, not only are they in perfect lock-step rhythmically, but the lean on exactly the same notes in exactly the same way – just like the Everly or Delmore brothers could do when singing together. Amazing stuff from amazing musicians.
Tune: Raining at Sunset
Album: Not All Who Wander Are Lost, Chris Thile
This song is proof that virtuosity on the mandolin doesn’t have to mean face-melting, machine-gun-like strings of sixteenth notes. And it’s a nice showcase for Chris Thile the composer as well as Chris Thile the mandolinist. Mandolin, as a rule, isn’t as expressive an instrument as, say, the fiddle – but it sings a gorgeous lullaby in this song.
Tune: Second Mouse
Album: Real Time, Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott
Sometimes you just need to have a little fun. And that’s exactly what these two masters must have been doing when they recorded this song. They each swap instruments repeatedly throughout the song, meandering through the usual suspects (guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo) into the unexpected (kazoo), and eventually the farcical (toy fiddle). The simple fact that they could pull this thing off is amazing, but what’s even more astounding is that the result is very enjoyable to listen to. Left to lesser musicians, an undertaking like this would have come off as grandstanding (“Look how many instruments I can play!”). But that wasn’t the idea at all – one would assume that these two are confident in their musicianship and don’t need the world to fawn over their prowess. This tune seems like it was one of those ideas hatched late in the evening after a long day of recording as something to inject some fun into the project. It must have worked – it’s a lot of fun to listen to!
Tune: Down In The Swamp
Album: Drive, Bèla Fleck
From the first note, this tune slithers languidly off the strings of the fiddle like an eel in a Louisiana swamp. A little later, the fiddle is joined in unison by banjo with supporting rhythm (bass, guitar), and is then sped up to something still far short of fiery. It’s simple and short, and perhaps because of those qualities, is something of a earworm (or ear-eel?) – once it gets into your head you may find it hard to drive the thing out.
Tune: Lil’ Liza Jane
Album: So Long, So Wrong, Alison Krauss & Union Station
I’ve always found it intriguing that, after listening to an instrumentalist for long enough, you can distinguish their playing from others pretty easily. This is especially true on fiddle/violin, because of the expressiveness of the instrument, but it’s also the case with players of the generally more limiting fretted instruments. Sam Bush and Chris Thile have a sound all their own, as does Adam Steffey, who is featured on the mandolin on this tune. I’ve always been amazed at the combination of speed, drive and flawlessness of his playing on this tune. Alison Krauss’s longbow-style fiddle playing on her turn through the melody provides a nice contrast to the thundering herd of sixteenth notes coming out of Steffey’s mandolin when he’s in the driver’s seat. I always feel like I have to catch my breath after listening to this track!
Tune: Presbyterian Guitar
Album: Aereo-Plain, John Hartford
John Hartford was best known for his prowess on the fiddle and the banjo, but he was also an incredible guitar player. This song, recorded on what has been called “the album that changed bluegrass forever,” is sea of calm in the middle of an album that thumbed its nose at the staid traditions of bluegrass with songs like “Boogie,” while paying homage to those same traditions (“Tear Down the Grande Ole Opry”).
I had the good fortune of meeting and playing with John in my younger days when I was a deckhand and entertainer on the steamboat Julia Belle Swain. During that time we had some philosophical discussions about what was most important in music. I was convinced that melody and harmony trumped rhythm, while John maintained that rhythm was king (“You can’t have music without rhythm – it would just lie there – but you can have music with rhythm but not melody. Otherwise, what is a drum?”) I wasn’t fully convinced then, and I’m still not, but I’m a better rhythmic player because of those talks.
I bring all that history up because Presbyterian Guitar is about as beautiful a marriage of melody and harmony as I’ve ever heard played by a single player (he fingerpicks this one). John’s fiddle and banjo playing was often about seeing how fast he could play and still keep the metronome happy. But when he slowed it down, he could play stuff that was achingly beautiful. If you haven’t heard this tune, you owe it to yourself to give it a listen.
Tune: Lil’ Jack Slade
Album: Home, Dixie Chicks
On Home, the Dixie Chicks returned to their roots a bit with a much more traditional, acoustic sound, and managed to squeeze in an instrumental track where they could show their chops a bit. They brought some first-rate help to the party (Chris Thile on mandolin, Bryan Sutton on guitar), and the result is out of this world. This is toe-tapping, even foot-stomping bluegrass, played with equal parts finesse and reckless abandon. This song won a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance in 2003.
Whew. That’s a lot of good music. I should throw all those in a playlist on my iPod – they would make a nice mix for a long road trip. Of course, my family might object to that…
Anyway, thanks for reading, and I hope you find some enjoyment in these tunes. You can find most, if not all, on Lala (www.lala.com), where you will be able to listen to them at least one time for free.
Do you have any favorites you’d like to share? If so, please do! I love exploring new music, and would love to hear from you…