Let’s start with this: the Highland Travelers are not just a repackaged version of the Boxcars. Though they’ve retained the recently disbanded group’s three main vocalists and its firm grasp on the modern traditional sound, the Highland Travelers have a slightly different vibe than the Boxcars. They’re a little brighter, a little more cheerful, and bit more country. They’ve got a heck of a record here, regardless, filled with some of the best musicians currently working in bluegrass, and a strong selection of songs.
I’m going to go ahead right here and say that Keith Garrett needs to be the next IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year. He’s got one of the more unique and recognizable voices in a bluegrass community where “country-style” means “sings just like Keith Whitley.” He doesn’t disappoint here, handling the majority of the lead vocals throughout the album. Kentucky Gambler, a hit for Merle Haggard but penned by Dolly Parton, is excellent, with a chugging rhythm and a lonesome story just made for bluegrass. Haggard’s recordings usually adapt well to bluegrass, and this is no exception. Eli Johnston’s Always Will Be is a nice love song, with a happy, mid-tempo melody guided by Jason Davis’s banjo. Garrett, who often sounds more at home singing about murder and other nefarious subjects, fills the song with emotion and longing for the one at home.
One of the more easygoing songs on the album is That’s All Behind Me Now, which was written by Craig Market and Tim Stafford. Gary Hultman’s dobro and Garrett’s guitar work nicely together to create a thoughtful, reflective accompaniment for this number about learning from past mistakes. Old Country Church, another contemplative track, is one of only two Garrett originals on the album. It’s less of a Gospel song than it is a reflection on remembering the life lessons learned in childhood: “Now I’m older and wiser than I was back then, but you couldn’t tell it from the shape that I’m in. And when I get to thinking about all the hurt, memories come back to that old country church.”
While Garrett goes for lighter than usual, there’s still plenty of darkness around, in part thanks to Adam Steffey. Josh Miller’s Girl That Loved Me opens the album on an atmospheric note, with a series of verses building suspense as listeners wait to find out what happened to the singer’s girl when he left her behind. Steffey does doom, gloom, and suspense well, and this is a standout. He also does a fine job leading upbeat, driving, traditional numbers, which is where he’s found on I Guess I’ll Go On Dreaming. His smooth vocals almost make you not notice the frenetic instrumentation in the background, particularly rapid-fire banjo and mandolin. Hultman also takes one turn on lead here, on an old country song from Roger Miller and Faron Young. World So Full of Love is a well-written song, and Hultman brings an easygoing feel to it. While Miller recorded it with more of a mournful vocal, the Highland Travelers have given it the “upbeat sad song” treatment so beloved in bluegrass.
Back on the dark end of things is Garrett’s other original, written with Jeff Baker. The Little Tennessee has been a radio hit since its release earlier this year, and it’s currently sitting at number one on the Bluegrass Today weekly chart. It tells of people and livelihoods left behind after the TVA dammed up rivers in the mid-twentieth century. It’s got a love story, a leaving story, and history – what more could you want? Pitch perfect instrumentation and vivid lyrics add to the song’s appeal. There’s plenty of strong musicianship in Jason Davis’s original banjo tune Poplar Knob, as well. What’s so good about Davis’s picking is that while he has the skill to play whatever he wants, he always plays just what the song needs. He, and the rest of the band, let loose a bit here to end the album on a fiery note.
I was a bit hesitant when I heard of the formation of the Highland Travelers, afraid it might just end up as all mash, all the time (which is, of course, good in its own way). This album has completely proven me wrong. There’s loads of drive – Davis and Kameron Keller, whose bass playing is solid as a rock, make sure of that. But there are also plenty of ventures into a more country vibe, and into a more contemplative feel. It’s a good, well-rounded sound, one that fans of all of the musicians involved should be able to get behind.
For more information on the Highland Travelers, visit them online at www.highlandtravelers.com.