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Gift Guide: Folk, Blues, Bluegrass and Celtic

by Glenn Weiser on December 6, 2012

Given that vintage guitars, mandolins, and banjos are pretty pricey as Christmas gifts, the next best thing you can give a roots music fan are CDs of people playing them well as they sing blues, folk ballads, bluegrass songs, and Celtic airs. It just so happens that some fine examples of all these saw daylight this year.

Many bluegrass pickers have paid homage to Bill Monroe with tribute CDs recently, and the best of these is flat-picking guitar god Tony Rice’s The Bill Monroe Collection (Rounder). This compilation is taken from a golden 15-year span during which Rice’s rich tenor vocals and jazz-tinged playing made him a leading performer on the acoustic circuit (owing to a degenerative throat condition, Rice no longer sings). The list of his sidemen reads like a high and lonesome Who’s Who: David Grisman, Bill Keith, J. D. Crowe, Doyle Lawson, Darol Anger, Jerry Douglas, and others.

Ricky Skaggs was only seven when he first played mandolin onstage with Bill Monroe. But the one-time boy wonder whom Chet Atkins credited with saving country music is now an eminence grise of the genre, as the 14-time Grammy winner’s latest CD, Music to My Ears (Skaggs Family Records), shows. Skaggs plays anything with strings on it superbly and has one the finest voices in roots music. The 11 tracks roam through bluegrass, country music and southern gospel, and there’s even a surprise: an unlikely guest appearance by Barry Gibb of Bee Gees fame on a song.

In 1981, the Rolling Stones took time out from their American tour to drop in on blues icon Muddy Waters at his Chicago nightclub, the Checkerboard Lounge. Film cameras and tape recorders rolled, capturing what in essence was the best blues open mic you’ve never seen. Ron Wood and Keith Richards trade stinging guitar solos with Buddy Guy, John Primer and Lefty Dizz, Mojo Buford and Junior Wells honk on harmonica, and Waters and Mick Jagger share vocal chores on a string of Muddy’s classic songs. Muddy Waters & The Rolling Stones Live At The Checkerboard Lounge, Chicago 1981 (Eagle Rock) may not be the tightest of sessions, but it is tremendous fun and shows the regard the Stones had for Muddy and other postwar Chicago blues greats.

For the acoustic side of blues, try Delta Time (Blue Groove) by Hans Thessink, and Terry Evans, with Ry Cooder.  This is the second duo album by the Dutch-born Thessink, a leading Euro-bluesman, and Evans, who has contributed vocals to Cooder’s earlier work and also the movie Crossroads. Cooder plays on only three tracks but leaves his masterful fingerprints all over the project’s production. This is a must-have for Cooder fans, and those new to Thessink’s work will be favorably impressed.

In an era where Celtic music seems to be drifting ever further toward rock from its roots in the old dance tunes, slow airs and ballads, the Irish supergroup Altan have served as trusty stewards of the tradition for 30 years. The Poison Glen (Compass) features the dulcet lead vocals and fiddle of Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, backed by Ciaran Tourish, fiddle, whistle, and vocals, Ciarán Curran on bouzouki and mandolin, Mark Kellyon guitar, bouzouki, and vocals, Dermot Byrne on accordion, and Dáithí Sproule on guitarand vocals. The band is in top form as they sail through jigs, reels, and songs both in Gaelic and English. Altan gets that when it ain’t broke, you don’t fix it.

The Chieftains, now in their 50th year, have produced several albums of collaborations with artists outside of Irish music. Their latest CD, Voice of Ages (Hear Music), runs in the vein of their 1995 record, The Long Black Veil, but here they have turned to younger musicians from different genres rather than durable rock and country stars. Indie artists such as Bon Iver, the Americana groups the Civil Wars, Pistol Annies, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and the Punch Brothers, and yes, even some fellow British Isles types including Imelda May, Lisa Hannigan, and Paolo Nutin all make cameos.

This year was the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth, and to mark the occasion, Smithsonian Folkways has issued a 57-track, 3-CD compilation of the Dust Bowl balladeer’s best-loved work along with a 150-page large-format book, Woody at 100. Here Guthrie is joined by Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston and Guthrie’s second wife Majorie for a hootenanny that will satisfy even the most inveterate folk purist. The collection includes 21 previously unreleased cuts, including Woody’s earliest known work from 1939.