A new release from The Boxcars is, for many bluegrass fans, a time to celebrate. The group is one of the most talented collections of artists currently on the bluegrass circuit, and they generally release extremely tasteful albums with well-rounded selections of songs – many from the pens of band members. Their latest album, Familiar with the Ground, comes with a few differences – new member Gary Hultman, and the addition of the dobro to the band’s sound, is the main one – but overall, the Boxcars deliver another solid effort that is sure to please fans of their previous records.
Familiar with the Ground has a darker vibe than some of the group’s earlier material. Their last album delved into the darker, angrier side of bluegrass with songs like Caryville and The Devil Held the Gun, and the band seems to continue in that vein here. Album opener, Townes Van Zandt’s Lungs, is a tortured rumination on pain and disappointment. The song isn’t your typical modern traditional bluegrass fare, but Keith Garrett nails the hardness needed to sing lyrics like “Well, won’t you lend your lungs to me? Mine are collapsing. Plant my feet and bitterly breathe up the time that’s passing.” The Ron Stewart penned (and sung) Branchville Line is a classic wrong-man-in-jail number fleshed out by Stewart’s gritty vocals. Marshallville is a well-written tale of outlaws and revenge in the old West written by Eli Johnston and Kevin McKinnon. Adam Steffey’s signature deep lead vocals fit the song well, bringing to mind fan favorite Born and Raised in Covington from a couple albums back.
On a (somewhat) lighter note is the bouncy I’m Dreaming of You, a banjo and dobro-guided lost love number from Chris West with a catchy chorus. West also contributed Raised on Pain, which fans of Blue Moon Rising might recognize from their early 2000s album of the same name. West does a fine job writing songs about down-and-out characters, and this is surely one – the narrator of the song hasn’t been happy since he was three, when his “daddy left home… shacked up with some girl in Tennessee.” Garrett contributed a pair of original songs to the album, as well. Let the Water Wash Over Me is one of the album’s best, with a sparse arrangement led by Steffey’s mandolin chop. Stewart’s fiddle creates an ominous atmosphere as the old man telling the song’s story takes listeners back to the moment his life changed forever. Garrett also penned the title track, which has been released as the album’s first single and recently made its debut on the Bluegrass Today charts.
Traditional-leaning listeners will enjoy When the Bluegrass is Covered with Snow, a mid-tempo ode to Kentucky and the old home. The song, a fairly obscure number from the 1950s, was written by central Kentucky DJ and musician Tip Sharp. Interestingly, the original version of the song was one of J.D. Crowe’s earliest recordings. Album closer Brown Hill will also please fans of traditional music (long live Allen Mills). The Lost and Found number is rendered here in driving fashion with fine lead vocals from Garrett.
What more to say about the Boxcars? This album is exactly what we’ve come to expect from the group – strong modern traditional grass, featuring skilled instrumentals and vocals. Hultman’s dobro brings a different dimension to the group’s sound, perhaps adding to the darker feel here and there. I do miss the prominent fiddle that many of their previous songs featured, but the lack of the instrument is understandable – as talented as he is, Stewart can’t very well play both it and the banjo at the same time. Overall, however, listeners should be quite satisfied.