By Larry Stephens
It’s difficult to find a CD without some fault. The only fault with the debut from The Boxcars is their failure to include twenty-five songs instead of thirteen, but I guess that wouldn’t be good marketing.
Adam Steffey is one of the top mandolinists in bluegrass music. He recently won two IBMA awards: Mandolin Player of the Year and Instrumental Recorded Performance of the Year for “Durang’s Hornpipe” (from his 2009 release, One More For The Road). He has been a member of several great bands, including the Lonesome River Band, Mountain Heart, Union Station and the Dan Tyminski Band. In addition to his picking, he sings harmony vocals and lead on “You Can Take Your Time” (by former bandmate Ron Block), a fun song about a jilted lover who finds being left isn’t as bad as he thought it would be. He also sings lead on “I Could Change My Mind”.
Ron Stewart epitomizes the versatility of bluegrass musicians. His first recording experience was at age nine, a guest appearance with Lester Flatt on a live album. He grew up in southern Indiana, part of a musical family, and the only bluegrass instrument he doesn’t lay claim to is the resophonic guitar. He was IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year in 2000 and has been nominated every year since. He appeared on stage with JD Crowe for six years and was part of Grammy-nominated Lefty’s Old Guitar. His chief role with The Boxcars is banjo but he may end up playing anything. He’s a talented singer, singing harmony vocals and lead on the self-penned “The Hard Way.” His composing talents stand out on this album with credits on four of the songs.
Ronnie and Adam are joined by three very capable bandmates. Bassist and singer Harold Nixon, a JD Crowe bandmate of Ronnie’s, leads a very active second life at the other end of the recording studio. John Bowman (fiddle, lead and harmony vocals plus banjo and guitar) spent time with Doyle Lawson’s band, Union Station, and a number of years with The Isaacs. He’s married to Becky Isaacs. Keith Garrett was nominated as IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year in 2006. He was a founding member of Blue Moon Rising and provides the majority of lead vocals as well as playing the guitar. Keith is also a talented songwriter, contributing five songs that are on the CD.
So, we have five talented pickers and singers in this new band. The other key elements to a great CD are the technical aspects of recording and the song selection.
Making a living playing bluegrass is a tough row to hoe. If you’re lucky enough to have a hit or two in country music you may sell a few million records and make some money (though the ratio of those who make it big to those who try is pretty low). When it comes to bluegrass, Dr. Ralph is one of the few performers who has made it really big, and that came on the heels of O Brother Where Art Thou. Rumor has it that the Cherryholmes family is getting some big money for shows, but, as good as they are, they have moved away from the center track of bluegrass music. So, many bluegrass musicians have other vocations. Harold Nixon is heavily engaged in the control room side of recording and provided the recording equipment for this CD. He and Ronnie Stewart shared recording engineer, mixing and mastering duties. Some of the mixing and overdubs were done at Stewart’s Sleepy Valley Barn in Paoli, Indiana. Stewart, Nixon and all the others on the technical side of this CD know what they are doing. The recording quality is topnotch.
The song selection is interesting. They manage to put a fresh face on mainstream bluegrass. The only recognizable old song in the bunch is “Log Cabin In The Lane” allegedly written by the late Jim Eanes and recorded by him on Starday Records. It was also recorded by Bill Monroe on his 1970 Kentucky Bluegrass LP, Jim & Jesse and Bill Keith (several times each). It’s interesting to note the variation in the lyrics as recorded here compared to the lyrics used by Monroe.
Rebel Records has just released a Lost & Found retrospective CD. To my surprise, I find “Log Cabin In The Lane” as one of their numbers off a 2002 Rebel release. The lyrics sung by Allen Mills are very close to the Bill Monroe lyrics reported above. In this case, though, the composer is given as Will Hays. What’s up with that?
A search at the Harry Fox Songfile website on the song title finds only one entry, credited to J. Eanes. No entry for Will Hays is found in Songfile.
That’s probably because it’s likely now in the public domain. The song was written in 1871 by Hays. According to the notes in the Bluegrass Picker’s Tune Book by Richard Matteson, Jr., page 151, the song was the second best country music seller in 1923, a version by Fiddlin’ John Carson. In 1926 Ernest Stoneman’s version was the fith best selling country music record. The YouTube version leaves no doubt it’s the same song. The song has a long history of recordings and soundalikes.
We’ll probably never know why Eanes became credited with the song three decades after these releases, eight plus decades after it was first penned. But, this isn’t unusual in the music business where songs are sold by down-on-their-luck composers for a pittance, borrowed – knowingly or not – or slighly altered and newly copyrighted.
The heart-grabber is “In God’s Hands.” This is the story of a mother who must make a choice about the unborn baby she carries. She refuses, saying that the baby’s life in in God’s hands. She loses the baby, but the song goes on to say, if the baby could send them a message, it would be, “I know that you’ll understand the day He calls you home, it was best for me to be in God’s hands.” That should cause any parent who has watched over a sick child to stop and reflect.
“Never Played the Opry” is the story of a musician who should have been great, but he never made it to the big time. It’s a good song, has a great country music feel to it, and guest Alan Jackson sings the lead – except it’s not Jackson. Garrett must be chanelling Jackson on this song. “Old Henry Hill” is the story of a rounder who loses his woman and features some great harmony, while “I Went Back Home Today” is a fresh take on a theme that’s been repeated countless time in bluegrass music. Can they drive an up-tempo number? Don’t doubt it for a minute. “Jumpin’ the Track” is a Stewart instumental while “Take Me On The Midnight Train” is a Garrett composition.
At the top of the bluegrass mountain you’ll find several bands that, when you listen to them, you’ll swear the music just couldn’t get any better. The Boxcars are camped out there with the best in the business. If the music gets any better than this we just won’t be able to stand it.