Bryan Sutton’s 10 Essential Bluegrass Albums

The Essential Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys – Columbia Country Classics
You see the whole evolution of bluegrass through this compilation. It’s hard for me to decide the one Bill Monroe album that’s the best, but this gives you a really good sense of how the bluegrass sound developed. Plus, you get some really good recordings of that initial five-piece band with Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise, and Cedric Rainwater. Those were the guys who created the exact template for what a bluegrass band should sound like. You always have to start there.

Flatt and Scruggs – The Complete Mercury Recordings
This collection probably represents three or four albums from their “golden” era. This band was more influential around my area than in other places, for whatever reason. I guess since Earl was from North Carolina there was a little more connection with all the banjo players I was around growing up. Flatt and Scruggs reigned supreme around Western North Carolina when I was a kid.

Stanley Brothers – The Complete Columbia Stanley Brothers
I learned more about the Stanley Brothers as I got older and started playing gigs outside of my hometown. The Stanley Brothers had this whole soul thing in there, and it’s a huge part of what bluegrass is with that emotion and personal connection. Carter Stanley had such a way to draw you in as a singer and listen to his stories. This collection represents their prime era with those songs and Carter’s soul.

John Hartford – Aereo-Plain
I’m really fascinated how guys can turn the page yet still keep older music very much relevant and alive. It’s this balance of tradition and innovation that’s really intriguing. This is a record that will always be on my iPods from here forward. John Hartford had a wonderful sense of originality and great modern songwriting when he was in his prime, along with his great banjo and fiddle playing.

Doc Watson – Southbound
I just have to involve Doc. This is my favorite record of his and it’s really not some of the flashiest picking in the world, but you feel like you’re sitting in the room with him. There are some classic Doc Watson fiddle tunes on there, but there’s just a vibe about this record that feels so warm. Literally every time I hear that record I’m there in that room with him. It was an essential honesty that Doc Watson had. Outside of his humor, songs, and flashy picking, you had this very rooted sense of self. That record sums a lot of it up for me.

J.D. Crowe & The New South
Most bluegrass fans just call it “0044” because that was the Rounder catalog number. That’s the first real collection of J.D., Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, and Jerry Douglas working together. That was a band that played a lot over a few years in Kentucky, but really only existed to make this one record. This is the modern classic bluegrass record. That sound ushered in the modern bluegrass era for most bands that came after.

The Tony Rice Unit – Manzanita
This is the ultimate Tony Rice album for me because of his tone, ability to creatively interpret a song, and his supreme originality. Anytime I want to hear what acoustic guitars should sound like, I put that record on.

Skaggs & Rice
It’s what I’m always drawn to. This album has an adherence to these older sounds with a modern energy that just makes it more accessible.

The Bluegrass Album Band, Vol. 1
They did four other records, but this first one made a large splash in the bluegrass scene as a kind of a reassessment of older material done with modern hands. For me, and for most people who are around my age, those collections were seminal, important records.

Béla Fleck – Drive
This was the first time I had heard that massive sound with Tony Rice, Béla, Sam Bush, and Mark Schatz working together. This is the real thing here with incredibly deep musicianship. I’m really drawn to Béla’s ability as an instrumentalist and songwriter. He understands how to be technically proficient and musical at the same time.