Train songs are a staple of bluegrass and other forms of traditional American music. From John Henry to In the Pines, from Orange Blossom Special to Blue Railroad Train, you can seldom attend a bluegrass show without hearing at least one song dedicated to the mystery, power, and lonesomeness of trains. But what about an entire album consisting of nothing but train songs? That’s what The High 48s Bluegrass Band has attempted with its most recent recording, Great Northern Railroad.
The album isn’t simply a collection of “greatest hits” train songs. Instead, the Minnesota-based group has put together a selection of ten songs, both originals and some pulled from popular songwriters, which use trains as part of a larger theme. It’s a neat concept in which all of the songs somehow mention trains but also touch on most of the other popular bluegrass subjects – leaving, heartbreak, and hard work, among others.
Banjo player Anthony Ihrig contributed two originals to the project. The first, the title track, opens the album with the tale of a man who spent his whole life working rough jobs on the railroad line, leaving him worn out and crippled, but holding out hope that his hard work has spared his children a similar future. The song, which was featured as part of the 2012 IBMA Songwriter’s Showcase, is a well-written ode to Ihrig’s grandfather with nice guitar work from Marty Marrone, who also provides lead vocals. Ihrig’s other original is the sassy, upbeat That Train Has Left the Station. It really has nothing to do with trains, but the title phrase is cleverly used as both a kiss-off to the singer’s ex and a nod to the album’s theme. A third band original, the excellent fiddle tune Indian Valley Line, comes from fiddler Eric Christopher.
One of the album’s best cuts is the driving cover of Smoke Along the Track, which is perhaps best known from Stonewall Jackson’s country version from the late 1950s and was more recently recorded by Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers. The amped-up instrumentation, strong rhythm, and Marrone’s confident vocals are reminiscent of Jimmy Martin. The traditional Two Trains Runnin’ should also be a highlight for fans of straightforward grass, with nice harmonies and guitar runs that call back to the early years of bluegrass, as should The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home.
Though The High 48s can confidently be called a traditional bluegrass band, they occasionally veer a little towards a newer sound. Marrone’s lead vocals fall somewhere between high lonesome and the folk-pop style of more progressive groups. Ihrig’s five-string playing does the same occasionally, on songs like Baltimore and Ohio, a peaceful, melodic tour through the singer’s life written by Becky Schlegel and Craig Market, and on the instrumental Indian Valley Line.
On Great Northern Railroad, the members of The High 48s Bluegrass Band prove themselves to be quite adept at traditional-style bluegrass. Marrone (guitar), Ihrig (banjo), Christopher (fiddle), Rich Casey (bass), and Chad Johnson (mandolin) are all talented musicians who offer both skilled solos and strong backing instrumentation. Christopher’s fiddling and Marrone’s guitar playing particularly stand out throughout the album.
For more information on The High 48s, visit the band’s website at www.thehigh48s.com. Great Northern Railroad can be purchased from CDBaby and County Sales.