The Boxcars,
Familiar with the Ground
(Mountain Home, 2016)

Lonesome River Band,
Bridging the Tradition
(Mountain Home, 2016)

Two of the best current bluegrass bands bless us with a couple of appropriately tasty releases. In common with a lot of outfits these days, they fuse traditional sounds with modern approaches. Unlike some young bands, however, they're not straying radically from the roots (in mountain music and mid-century country) into pop or experimental territory. They know what gives bluegrass its strength, and they just amp it up, at least in the metaphorical sense.

In the case of the venerable Lonesome River Band, the contemporary touches consist of occasional drums and piano from guest musicians. The terrific "Rocking of the Cradle," written by Kim Williams and Doug Johnson, is rather more traditional country than standard bluegrass. On the other hand, the venerable folksong "Boat's Up the River" is performed in an oldtime stringband arrangement, eloquently attesting to LRB's keen appreciation of where bluegrass came from.

As usual LRB is operating at full power, even as its personnel continue to change. This time around, Jesse Smathers replaces Randy Jones, who played mandolin on LRB's previous release (Turn on a Dime, which I reviewed here on 14 February 2015). A gaggle of pickers has passed through LRB's revolving doors over the decades of its existence, and no original members remain. But ace banjoist Sammy Shelor, who's been around since 1990, anchors the act with his keen chops and artist's vision. Meantime, the other four members more than hold their own. Smathers and Brandon Rickman (guitar) are lead vocalists of more than ordinary gifts.

Really, at this stage a reviewer can only odd throw up his hands and join the rest in piling on the praise. If you love LRB, you'll know what to expect. And if you haven't heard these guys before, you're in for a helping of bluegrass bliss.

Though this is their fourth album, Familiar with the Ground is the first Boxcars CD I've heard. Prior this, I knew only of their stellar reputation. I'd seen them, too, once or twice on Ronnie Reno's Saturday-night bluegrass show on RFD-TV, and I liked what they were doing. Their new disc pleases consistently. Not the least of it is the Boxcars' taste in material: solid, melodic songs, sometimes carrying strikingly original narratives (two examples: "Branchville Line" and "Let the Water Wash Over Me" by band members Ron Stewart [banjo] and Keith Garrett [guitar] respectively).

The first cut, though, is something of a jolt, the late Townes Van Zandt's "Lungs," which I've known since the 1970s but never imagined anyone would try to frame in bluegrass. As lyrically murky as anything Van Zandt ever set to paper, it feels of a time when "serious" songwriters felt compelled to throw words together in confounding flourish, presumably to ally themselves with the indecipherable second-period Dylan. I recall one interpretation, that "Lungs" is about a dying man caught in a mine disaster, but that doesn't seem to be it. Still, Van Zandt always had a way with melodies, and you can't complain about this one.

Though the product of 21st-century 'grass, the Boxcars come from the lineage of the smoother, more urban approach invented or developed by the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene. Not even hard-core traditionalists, at least if they were not crazy at the batshit level, complained, because the Gents and the Scene created music that was too technically accomplished and emotionally engaging to deny. The same is to be said -- emphatically -- of the Boxcars, recipients already of some of the genre's top awards. I could listen to Familiar anytime, anywhere, and likely never grow weary. I guess I'd better hunt up their other recordings.

music review by
Jerome Clark

21 May 2016

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