Billy Strings (L) and Billy Failing perform in concert during a taping of the "Austin City Limits" TV show at ACL Live on July 7, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Gary Miller/Getty Images)
Photo by Gary Miller/Getty Images

The State of 21st Century Bluegrass in 10 Songs

[dropcap]L[/dropcap]ike its first cousin country music, bluegrass has consistently evolved beyond its folk and old-time origins. Even such pillars as Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley adjusted to technology and trends while setting the template for traditional bluegrass. And of course the newgrass pioneers of the 1970s and beyond (from Sam Bush and Tony Rice to Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski) revitalized the genre without shunning convention. Indeed, change has been prevalent enough that it can be argued that the best way to be like the 20th century's most revered pickers and vocalists is to blend their influence with groundbreaking innovation.

Thus, the 10 varied acts below best represent the current state of bluegrass. It's a good bill of health, reflecting the same balance of homage and originality that's been in play since Monroe started it all in 1945.

The following playlist doesn't merely compile the 10 best modern bluegrass songs. Instead, it charts what's changed and what's stayed the same this century as an American art form reaches its 80th birthday.

"Tall Fiddler," Michael Cleveland (Feat. Flamekeeper and Tommy Emmanuel)

Our list begins with Michael Cleveland, a Grammy award-winning successor of such foundational fiddlers as two of Monroe's Blue Grass Boys: Kenny Baker and Chubby Wise. After all, the genre's lifeblood has always been its most virtuosic musicians.

"Mountains in Mississippi," Darrin and Brooke Aldridge

Married couple Darrin and Brooke Aldridge represents the long lineage of family bands while frequently playing on a show and stage integral to bluegrass history: Nashville's Grand Ole Opry.

"Blue Collar Dreams," Balsam Range

Few do a better job at presenting time-tested sounds in a modern context than Balsam Range. The North Carolina-based five-piece mastered instrumental precision and multi-part harmonies en route to a pair (2014, 2018) of International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Entertainer of the Year wins.

"Blues are Close at Hand," Po' Ramblin' Boys

Po' Ramblin' Boys offers something for pretty much every bluegrass fan. If your tastes lean so traditional that it seems like only Del McCoury does it right these days, you'll appreciate the five-piece's knowledge of and devotion to music history. If you're craving something fresh, the group's original songs suit the same playlists as those by some of the more outside-the-box acts that follow.

"Bombshell," Sierra Hull

Tennessee native Sierra Hull joins Chris Thile (Nickel Creek, Punch Brothers) and other top-flight 21st century mandolinists in keeping Monroe's instrument of choice at the forefront of bluegrass while ensuring that the genre remains fresh and relevant for listeners of all ages.

"Down Low," Town Mountain

Here's where our list strays from classic bluegrass preservation efforts (though as already established, tradition equals change) to inventive amalgams. In the case of Town Mountain, elements from bluegrass' beginnings anchor a sound that's just as indebted to Appalachian protest songs and the countrified rock of groups like The Band.

Country outsider Tyler Childers gave Town Mountain his stamp of approval by co-writing "Down Low" with banjo player and vocalist Jesse Langlais and performing it live with the band in the above video.

"Lemons and Tangerines," AJ Lee and Blue Summit

On 2021's I'll Come Back, AJ Lee and Blue Summit staked its claim as one of the most groundbreaking bands rooted in hardcore bluegrass.

The lack of a banjo player on "Lemons and Tangerines" and other memorable songs might throw off old souls. But again, tweaking the expected formula is a tradition in itself.

"Crooked Tree," Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway

An elite vocalist, songwriter and guitarist, Molly Tuttle's a triple threat who's brilliance would've shone in any era since the 1960s folk revival. Yet her talents best suit our current situation: a time when the roots-bound yet otherwise undefinable concept of Americana allows her fenceless vision to flourish.

"Must Be Seven," Billy Strings

At this point, Billy Strings' appeal transcends easy classification. Yet for the sake of this list, think of him as one of the strongest current links (along with the Infamous Stringdusters, Greensky Bluegrass and other festival fixtures) between the traditional bluegrass audience and the jam band scene that reveres banjo picker and rock idol Jerry Garcia.

"Long Hard Times to Come (Justified Main Theme)," Gangstagrass Feat. T.O.N.E-z

As its name telegraphs, Gangstagrass tests what happens when hip-hop MCs front a bluegrass band. Though that might read to some like a mix destined to fail, the group seamlessly weaves together two not-so-different strands of folk expression that often speak for the lower and working classes.

Many first heard Gangstagrass through this theme for the FX western drama Justified.

READ MORE: The History of Artists Proclaiming Themselves Country in 10 Songs