The Railsplitters,
The Railsplitters
(independent, 2013)

The Show Ponies,
We're Not Lost
(independent, 2013)

Both the Railsplitters and the Show Ponies come out of identifiable traditions, but neither ever sounds terribly traditional. The Ponies are an evolutionary development from the country-rock of the late 1960s and early '70s; in other words, the influences are country, Western swing, bluegrass and folk. The Railsplitters can be plausibly defined as bluegrass, though of a modernist variety Bill Monroe could not have imagined when he invented the genre in the 1940s.

Besides the first-class musicianship that carries both, the two recordings are amiable in spirit. A fair portion of the material is light-hearted and jokey. This is particularly so with the West Coast-based Show Ponies, a five-member band (with two guest musicians here) built around Andi Carder and Clayton Chaney's distinctive songwriting. In fairness, the two are also adept at somber themes ("Pieces of the Past," "If I Die Tomorrow").

We're Not Lost was financed through patronage by fans, underscoring the commitment of the Show Ponies' audience to their success. The recording communicates the sense that the group must have quite an entertaining stage presence. It also conveys the impression that this is an approach to rooted music more suited to a demographic younger than the one I happen to occupy. That's not a criticism, of course. These guys are very good at what they do, and if you like a well-crafted, energetic, pop-inflected sound far better than anything you'll get on country radio, this is for you.

At one time a name like the Railsplitters (whose album, by the way, was also financed by its fans) would inform potential listeners that they were in for some hard-core mountain bluegrass. Not here, though its four young members, two men and two women from Colorado, had to be versed in such; no one will dispute their bluegrass instrumental chops.

But as with the Show Ponies, the Railsplitters infuse their approach with non-bluegrass elements, such as the occasional steel guitar, not a standard bluegrass instrument. As is sometimes the case when I hear an album whose approach I associate with stuff I dislike -- and I am not much of a fan of bluegrass-pop -- it took two or three listenings before I began to tune into the band's strengths: sweetly melodic songs, smart arrangements and strong musicality.

A particular strength is the remarkable, jazz-tinged mandolin playing of Peter Sharpe. Lauren Stovall, lead vocalist on most of the cuts, is as much a jazz singer as anything else. The banjo playing of Dusty Rider -- accompanying notes insist that's his real name -- draws from the same well. The band's urbanity and sophistication are what impress, sufficient to cause the listener to forget initial expectations of rustic notes. It's almost shocking when one comes upon a cut ("Lonesome Feeling," for example) that's pure, straight-ahead bluegrass. And the Railsplitters do that pretty impressively, too.

music review by
Jerome Clark

11 January 2014

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