In recent times, established country stars have taken a break from their bread-and-butter and tried their banjo, Dobro or fiddle playing hand at bluegrass. The talents that made these stars famous translated well to cosmopolitan country’s mountain-dwelling cousin, as evidenced by these five examples. Bluegrass players with country music careers, such as Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs and Marty Stuart, don’t make the cut. Instead, this list focuses on veteran performers without prior reputations in bluegrass circles.
Dierks Bentley is the pop-friendly country star that even some staunch pop-country haters respect, in part because of his bluegrass licks. Up on the Ridge might’ve caught some purists off guard upon its 2010 release. It finds Bentley exploring his love of modern country’s bluegrass roots. Such tracks as “Draw Me a Map,” featuring bluegrass legend Alison Krauss, didn’t change country radio, but they did swing old-timers’ perspectives on Bentley’s music.
As an elder statesman of 90’s country’s proud traditionalists, Alan Jackson delved into his gospel and bluegrass interests in recent years. His less-than-subtly titled 2013 offering The Bluegrass Album really shows off how Jackson’s now-iconic voice makes him a fantastic song interpreter. He earns further cool points for delving into the back catalog of bluegrass rebels and occasional Mayberry residents the Dillards.
When it comes to singers capable of getting the most out of others’ compositions, Loveless seemingly flies under the radar. For further proof of her immense talents as a song interpreter, see 2001 bluegrass album Mountain Soul. It’s less of a novelty in a long career and more of a benchmark moment, highlighted by perhaps the finest version of Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.”
Among the artists most synonymous with country music, Parton took three stabs at a bluegrass crossover since the late 1990’s. Her Grammy-winning Grass is Blue (1999) introduced Parton’s iconic voice to the bluegrass world. More recent selections Little Sparrow (2001) and Halos and Horns (2002) are marked by some interesting cover song choices. Parton offers bluegrass takes on such eclectic picks as Collective Soul’s “Shine” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
As a pop culture sound archivist, it’s no surprise that Dwight Yoakam dabbled in bluegrass. His 2016 album Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars looks back to cultural touchstones, as demonstrated by its Beverly Hillbillies-referencing title and a cover of Prince’s Purple Rain. It’s par for the course for an artist who made a point to reintroduce the general public to Buck Owens’ stellar pre-Hee Haw singles.