Family bands have long been a staple in bluegrass music. From Lewis to Cherryholmes, family harmony has always been celebrated in our genre of music. Much of the fascination with musical families begins pre-bluegrass with Bill Monroe and his brother, Charlie Monroe. The Monroe Brothers duet act put Bill Monroe on the map.
Something about making music alongside people with whom one was born to sing, is appealing to fans. Whether it’s a reflection of the family-friendly atmosphere most bluegrass festivals cultivate, or a microcosm of the familial-like connections which members of the bluegrass community have with one another, is yet to be determined.
The Harris family from Callahan, FL follows in the family band tradition as The Trinity River Band, and their latest album, Heartstrings may be their best musical offering to date. The band features Sarah Harris (mandolin) joined by her siblings, Josh (banjo and dobro) and Brianna (fiddle), and parents, Mike (guitar) and Lisa (upright bass). The whole family contributes great vocal work in some capacity, although Sarah’s singing is the unabashed focus of the band.
The album’s title track was written by Mike Harris, and discusses life on the road as a family band. Heartstrings sheds light on the family’s mission: to bless others with music that comes from the heart. They succeed in that mission on their new album; while every song may not suit the tastes of every listener, the material represents music which the band loves, and which moves them. Heartstrings features influences from bluegrass, country, Celtic, swing, folk, Gospel, and more, creating a vivid musical picture of the band as a whole.
It’s beyond obvious that Sarah Harris is largely influenced by Rhonda Vincent. This is most evident on Blue Mandolin, the album’s grassiest selection. A lonesome number about playing the mandolin when you’re heart has been broken (could you get any more bluegrass than that?), Sarah sings the song with conviction. Josh plays some great bluesy banjo as well.
Josh also provides some good lead singing on Rusty Old American Dream. Hearkening to the freedom of the open road, this one is sung from the perspective of an old, used car, wanting to be loved one last time. The melody is addictive, one you’ll find yourself humming all day (I know I have). Rusty Old American Dream is an anthem to the days of Route 66 and could remind us all of our first car. In addition to Josh’s lead singing, Mike’s guitar playing shines on this cut as well.
The Trinity River Band called on a pair of special guests to contribute on Heartstrings. Mark Johnson provided his signature “clawgrass” banjo stylings on the folky Tell Me Darlin’, while Marty Raybon duets with Sarah Harris on Fences. Fences is a particularly strong performance. Sarah’s takes a more delicate approach to her vocals, which blends nicely with Marty’s powerful singing.
Sarah goes from tenderness on Fences, to toughness of How Blue, the album’s star track. She sings with plenty of sass on this country classic from Reba McEntire. The song begins with a casual “family jam” feel, but once the trio of Sarah, Josh, and Brianna begins, you know that they mean business. The band’s combination of swing and blues elements on this country song make for a fun performance. Josh’s dobro playing is very tasteful, and the fun finger snaps add a great homey element. While Sarah’s vocals are the focus of the track, Mike’s guitar playing is what really anchors How Blue.
Heartstrings only features Mike singing lead on one song, which was slightly disappointing. While the band obviously wants to shine light on Sarah, utilizing a little more vocal variety would have been nice. Mike really shines, though, on Only Here For A Little While, his lone lead vocal. It opens with an a cappella rendition of the chorus, then transitions to Mike’s voice and Brianna’s fiddle. The arrangement subtly highlights the lyrics, and features Brianna’s best fiddle work on the record. Mike’s voice reminds me of T. Graham Brown, which is a great fit for Only Here For A Little While, as it was originally recorded by Billy Dean in the early-nineties, peaking at #3 on the Billboard Country charts. This reflective song about living life to the fullest is a great way to close the album, and who better to deliver the song than the family patriarch.
The Trinity River Band has grown since last spring’s Better Than Blue. They are beginning to develop a sound of their own, which is always welcome in bluegrass. Their convergence of multiple influences marks a unique style that, if they continue to cultivate it, should pay off dividends in the future. If Heartstrings is any indication, that day may come sooner rather than later.