Baltimore’s not a city we automatically connect with bluegrass music, at least not as much as we might think of Rosine, Nashville, or Bristol, to name a few. However, Baltimore has played host to quite a list of storied musicians over the years, from Earl Taylor to Del McCoury to Mike Munford. A more recent addition to the Baltimore bluegrass scene is Northern Connection, a local group keeping bluegrass traditions alive and well. Their debut, self-titled album from Patuxent Music is the definition of straightforward bluegrass, performed just like it was half a century ago.
The album’s fifteen songs are all classics, though a few are more well-known than others. Northern Connection makes no concessions to pop or folk music, and very, very few to country. You won’t find any drums here, that’s for sure. The music is tight, the banjo is ever-present, and the harmonies are high. These guys have learned and lived bluegrass, and they want to make sure you know it. Jon Weisberger sums up the band perfectly in the album’s liner notes: “This is the straight-ahead stuff, played and sung by men who have it deep in their bones, and feel no need to look any further.”
The band has pulled from the songbooks of Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, the Osbornes, and Jim & Jesse, among others. The highlights include a lonesome Mr. Engineer, with a snappy mandolin intro from Mark Seitz, an enjoyable, full-sounding cut of Pain in My Heart, and an earnest, honky-tonk flavored She’s No Angel. Handsome Molly is another strong number; yes, everyone who’s ever jammed has played it, but there’s something to be said about good driving banjo and clear fiddle (here, courtesy of Bobby Lundy and Steve Streett).
Del McCoury is represented with the rapid-fire Loggin’ Man, recorded somewhere in the neighborhood of 180 bpm. Bass player Brian Eldreth captures a bit of McCoury’s signature vocal style here, while Frankie Short offers up several powerful g-runs. It and Freeborn Man are a nice pick-me-up for an album that’s otherwise mostly slow to mid-tempo. The album’s instrumentals – Bill Cheatham and Shenandoah Breakdown – also have some pep behind them, and serve to spotlight the band members’ traditional style of picking.
Living Like a Fool calls to mind a smoke-filled barroom; it’s bluegrass with a classic country bent. Short’s guitar opening sets the tone nicely, while the vocals hit just the right mixture of heartbreak and misery. Merle Haggard’s The Longer You Wait is probably the most modern-sounding song on the album. It seems to be influenced more by Livewire’s cut from the early nineties than Haggard’s Bakersfield sound. It’s a strong cut though, with a bright sound and nice fiddle from Streett.
On this album, Northern Connection proves they’ve got traditional bluegrass down pat, both when it comes to instrumentation and slightly rough-around-the-edges vocals. They handle these classic numbers with ease, transporting listeners back through the years to when many of the songs were brand new. Fans of the early stuff – or current bands like Big Country Bluegrass – should find much to enjoy here.
For more information on Northern Connection, visit them on Facebook. Their new album is available from several online music retailers.