Hamilton County Ramblers are a relatively new bluegrass group, based in Chattanooga, TN, and composed of veteran bluegrass performers with a wide range in age and interests. What they share is what matters, however: a passion for thoughtful, contemporary bluegrass played with precision and authority.
Hearing their new, self-titled album brought immediately to mind Marching Home, the celebrated debut from Balsam Range in 2007. Here was an exciting new voice in our music, a distinctive sound created without breaking beyond what is widely understood to be the mainstream of the style.
And so it is with Hamilton County Ramblers. Multiple lead singers add variety to their music, though mandolinist James Kee handles the lion’s share of the vocal leads. They’ve recorded a couple of new songs, but the bulk is culled from the rich catalog that bluegrass and folk music has created over the last few generations.
In their hands, numbers from James Taylor, Reno & Smiley, Alton Delmore, and Stephen Foster blend comfortably into a fresh mélange of present-day bluegrass. These guys don’t intend to rework or refashion this music, they just want to add their contribution to it in their own particular manner.
Their love of the old way is perfectly captured in the cover art, which is designed to resemble a well-worn LP that has been cherished and played through the years. Younger artists learning the music now may one day wax nostalgic when gazing at old CDs from their youth, but it was the 33 1/3 RPM records – and even the 78 RPMs before them – that nurture the memories of bluegrass old timers today.
We hear that love of music from an earlier age on Wave The Sea, an old time classic given an uptempo treatment, Standing On The Mountain, a hit for Jim & Jesse and The Delmore Brothers, and a lovely a cappella treatment of Hard Times, Stephens Foster’s iconic mid-19th century anthem of desperation and woe. Each gets an exactly appropriate rendition, true both to the sentiment of the song, and with reference to prior recordings.
The same is true for songs from the latter part of the 20th century, like James Taylor’s Copperline and Norman Wright’s Separating Hearts. It’s a widely understood truism in the music biz that covering Taylor’s music is rife with pitfalls, given his distinctive and universally-recognized voice, but Kee does a fine job with this one, which Taylor had recorded in 1991 with a similar acoustic/folk vibe.
Other favorites include Cora’s Gone, with a super-tasty banjo kickoff from Jim Pankey that closely resembles Earl Scruggs’ solo on the Foggy Mountain Boys’ recording, and I Hear Ya Talkin’, a Bob Wills standard that really swings. Lost love gets its proper treatment in a new song from Jon Weisberger and Sarah Siskind, I Just Came Back To Say Goodbye, and Reno & Smiley’s Wall Around Your Heart.
James Kee makes a pitch here to become one of the strong new singers in bluegrass, as does bassist John Hixson, who sings tenor on most of the tracks. The whole band shines with their instruments, rounded out by John Boulware on fiddle and Roy Curry on guitar. The album’s lone instrumental is an old times romp, Old Chattanooga, performed as a banjo/fiddle duet with Pankey on clawhammer banjo.
This is smooth, modern bluegrass, professionally played and sung by a band likely to leave quite a mark if they remain together going forward. Great stuff!