The Boxcars Familiar With the Ground (Mountain Home)
Done correctly, bluegrass is the most beautiful music imaginable. While some long-running bands—Lonesome River Band, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, among others—find the need to tinker with the essential sound, others instinctively know what makes bluegrass bluegrass.
[Insert tired argument that the Osborne Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Alison Krauss, and others have brought drums into ‘grass. They did. They shouldn’t have. Want proof? Listen to the LRB’s latest, Bridging the Tradition: on what could have been a powerful recording, “Rose in Paradise,” “Showing My Age,” “Waiting on My Heart to Break,” “Real People,” and other fine songs are absolutely gutted by the inclusion of distracting, annoying percussion effects…and piano, for gawds sake!]
Fortunately, The Boxcars get bluegrass like few others. One of the music’s most consistent outfits, The Boxcars haven’t missed a beat welcoming the newest member of the band, youthful reso player John Hultman, into the fold. While bluegrass bands should always feature a fiddle player on their recordings, when the outfit is as strong as The Boxcars one makes exception.
With their fourth album released this week on Mountain Home and the title track already near the top of the weekly Bluegrass Today airplay chart, The Boxcars appear poised to remain in contention for IBMA awards when the 2016 nominees are announced. A little laid back, The Boxcars’ approach bridges the generations of bluegrass and its foundational traditions with a spirit of continual innovation and reinvention that isn’t permitted to lose sight of the roots.
With the exception of the departed John Bowman, The Boxcars founding core remains intact: Adam Steffey, eleven time (out of the past fourteen years) IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year; Ron Stewart, a two-time IBMA instrumentalist of the year—once each on banjo and fiddle; Keith Garrett, guitar; and Harold Nixon, bass. The addition of Dobro to the band’s sound isn’t jarring in any way, perhaps refreshing the group before staleness became apparent.
Coming in at a concise 30 minutes, Familiar With the Ground passes in a hurry. With the curious decision to open things with one of Townes Van Zandt’s least linear compositions “Lungs”—singer Keith Garrett’s previous group Blue Moon Rising cut the more obvious “Marie” several years back—The Boxcars demonstrate they are unlikely to settle into the comfort of the expected anytime soon: a song without chorus, “Lungs” works as a bluegrass number thanks to Stewart’s banjo rolls and Garrett’s heartfelt delivery.
While I could listen to Garrett’s smooth voice all day long, I have always been attracted to Steffey’s rough-hewn baritone. His songs—“Cold Hard Truth,” “Marshallville”—a tale of cold vengeance—and especially “Raised on Pain,” a Chris West song originating within Blue Moon Rising—are what truly sets The Boxcars apart from the pack. These songs ooze authenticity of emotion, capturing human experience at its most vulnerable.
While the band has elected not to have Stewart do double duty on fiddle and banjo, the veteran contributes the excellent original “Branchville Line,” a train-themed song of unjust imprisonment. Garrett’s finest vocal performance may be on “When the Bluegrass is Covered in Snow,” a traditional sounding number from—I believe—more than 50 years ago: Google the song title and J.D. Crowe for the original by Tip Sharp.
Continuing their own tradition of excellence, with the self-produced Familiar With the Ground, The Boxcars ably demonstrate that there is nothing better than a five-piece bluegrass band. No percussion required.