Given the down home implications inherent in the title, it’s hardly surprising to find singer and songwriter Jimbo Whaley, a native of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, making music that is inherent in the Appalachian culture connected to his birthright. After all, his songs draw on his upbringing and experience living in the shadows of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Whaley in fact made his mark early on with Pine Mountain Railroad, a band he helped form in 1998. Under his leadership and guidance, it achieved the distinction of being named an International Bluegrass Music Association’s Emerging Artist of the Year nominee two years in a row. Their album, The Old Radio, became a perennial staple on the bluegrass charts and spawned a hit single in its wake.
Whaley, who currently performs with the bluegrass band Greenbrier, also scored some significant success on his own, as evidenced by the fact that he was chosen to perform at the IBMA’s Songwriter Showcase in both 2002 and 2003. He also placed four of his original tunes in the soundtrack for Bell Witch: The Movie, a film in which he also made his onscreen debut. In addition, Whaley was the featured performer at a concert that took place at the Ryman Auditorium, a performance which coincided with the movie’s premiere.
Given the high standard set early on, it was incumbent upon both Whaley and Greenbrier — which consists of Whaley (guitar), Abbey Tungett (vocals, fiddle), Gary “Biscuit” Davis (banjo, occasional guitar), Roger Helton (guitar), and Scott Carris (bass), and in this case, special guest Roscoe Morgan (mandolin) — to create an album that could easily measure up to those earlier achievements. Clearly they were capable of doing so. A mix of Whaley’s originals and some creative covers — their remarkable rendition of Prince’s Purple Rain is especially unexpected — the new album is, by turns, both touching and tenacious. The title song is especially affecting in that it echoes Guy Clark’s Randall Knife through a narrative that’s tenderly told about a blade that spans several generations.
Other songs follow suit — among them, a sympathetic take on the classic country hit, Old Flames Can’t Hold A Candle To You, the noticeably nostalgic, The Old Radio, the sweetly sentimental, Missy Rose, and the Darrell Scott standard, You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive. Whaley and company convey a decidedly unassuming sound — pleasant, personable, and drawn from traditional trappings. Yet though the archival influences are prevalent throughout, the music never comes across as dated or otherwise obscure.
To the contrary, when the musicians accelerate the energy, as on the rousing and robust Ballad of the Knoxville Train, Long Journey Home, and Break Your Heart (With A Bluegrass Song), they do so with prowess as opposed to pretense. A take on Thank God I’m A Country Boy, a tune famously rendered by John Denver, is a clear case in point.
The result is a finely tuned set of songs that tug at the heartstrings and easily elicit an emotional response. Suffice it to say that Grandpa’s Pocket Knife makes an indelible impression.