A friendly Battle of the Bands

The Boxcars and the Gibson Brothers have been crossing paths a lot lately, and not just on the festival circuit. Their current albums, the self-titled debut by the Boxcars and the Gibsons’ Help My Brother, have spent time at the top of the Bluegrass Unlimited national survey, with Eric and Leigh Gibson owning the top spot for the second straight month and the Boxcars holding down second again. The two bands combined also claim five of the top 23 slots on the song chart, with Help My Brother at Number One.

On Saturday, at the Out Among the Stars festival in Benton, Pa., the bands were seemingly inseparable. They played back-to-back sets in the evening, dined together at the Grillbillies tent and, when things slowed at the merchandise tables, Leigh pulled up a chair next to Boxcars mandolin master Adam Steffey and had a laugh-filled chat.

As I watched it all unfold and listened to two strong sets from each band, I couldn’t help thinking that they’d be crossing paths again this fall, at the IBMA awards show in Nashville. Both bands should be on the stage several times, both for group recognition and individual honors. In my book, in fact, Help My Brother and The Boxcars are the top contenders for album of the year. (It helps each band that Alison Krauss and Union Station’s Paper Airplane came out too late to be eligible this year.)

While it’s a little too early to make a final selection, I’ve seen both bands three or four times recently and have reached several conclusions. It’s all subjective, of course; your mileage may vary. Feel free to add your two cents in the comments.

For starters, there are no tighter harmonies in bluegrass today than when Eric and Leigh sing together. And they’re nearly as tight on stage as they are in the studio. Eric should get some support for male vocalist of the year and one year after Ring the Bell won song of the year and gospel song of the year, Singing As We Rise is a strong gospel contender and Help My Brother should be a finalist for song of the year. For my money, though, the writing, singing and musicianship of story songs are what put this album near the top. Leigh’s Safe Passage and Eric’s Dixie are both sublime examples of the subset. Joe Walsh (mandolin) and Mike Barber (bass) are worthy of individual recognition, too, although both face crowded fields of monster talent.

The Boxcars counter with an all-star lineup. In addition to Adam, who has won the mandolin statue so many times it should be named in his honor, the band features one of the best male vocalists on the circuit, Keith Garrett. It will be tough to displace Russell Moore, but if voters are paying attention, Keith should have a shot. He’s also a strong writer. His December 13th will get a lot of attention for song of the year.

But the real weapon in this supergroup stands to Adam’s right on stage. Ron Stewart could win for both banjo and fiddle. His playing is never over the top, adding just the right seasoning to each song. His mastery of the fiddle was evident in back-to-back songs in the band’s first set Saturday. First, he and Adam played heartbreakingly tender licks behind John Bowman’s poignant vocals on In God’s Hands. Then, on Whistling Rufus, Ron let it rip. And his banjo playing? Eric Gibson, who knows a thing or two about playing the five-string, told the crowd, “Ronnie Stewart makes me want to throw my banjo away.”

Both bands are at the top of their game right now. Catch them if you can, and be prepared to be wowed. And watch for them both on stage at IBMA this fall.