One of my hands-down favorite songs from the past year was Jr Williams’s Railroad Town Without a Train, the poignant story of the closing of the Clinchfield railyards in Erwin, TN. Written by Tim Stafford and Thomm Jutz, the song expertly mixes the history of the Clinchfield and the town with the narrator’s sense of hopelessness at losing not only his livelihood, but that of the entire community. A gentle, melancholy melody guided by Adam Steffey’s mandolin, Aaron Ramsey’s guitar, and Jeff Partin’s dobro fits the lyrics perfectly, as does the hint of despair in Williams’s vocals.
Williams’s recent release from Mountain Fever Records, Railroad Town, features that song as a centerpiece, and it certainly stands out as the album’s top track. However, Williams has surrounded it with nine other cuts that are also strong, showcasing his warm lead vocals and some fine picking from excellent backing musicians. Most of the songs are familiar bluegrass or country favorites, with a few newer songs thrown in for good measure, making for an enjoyable listening experience for fans of modern traditional bluegrass.
Like many of Williams’s past recordings, this album varies between traditional-leaning, banjo-guided grass, and songs with a more acoustic country flavor. The first two tracks offer a perfect example. Williams’s banjo kicks things off with the mid-tempo Gonna Settle Down, giving listeners a faithful rendition of the Flatt & Scruggs classic. Ramsey’s mandolin adds a nice bounce to the rhythm, while Nathan Aldridge’s fiddle offers a bit of zest. This is followed by Williams’s rendition of the Don Williams hit, Lord, I Hope This Day is Good, which found quite a bit of success on radio in 2022. Again, Williams finds plenty of inspiration in the original, with a soft, yearning tone to his voice very reminiscent of Don Williams’s signature style.
A pair of gospel songs are also standouts here. On House of Gold, the stripped-back arrangement allows Williams’s voice – and the song’s moving lyrics – to shine. Bluesy fiddle from Aldridge is a nice addition, as well. Junior Sisk makes a guest appearance on Let Me Walk, Lord, By Your Side, offering a wonderful lead vocal that effortlessly encompasses that haunting, mountain gospel style.
Other highlights for me included Can I Go Home with You, the lively closing track written by Caleb Klauder, and the album’s lone instrumental, a great version of the Osborne Brothers’ Sledd Ridin‘. The former is a fun little number, finding Williams repeatedly asking a woman if she might like some company when she heads home at the end of the night, already envisioning “the day that we walk down the aisle.” The latter is a nice showcase for Williams’s banjo skills and a fine tribute to the late Sonny Osborne.
Mountain Fever is no slouch when it comes to releasing strong recordings. Railroad Town is a bit compact, at just ten songs, but anyone who enjoys modern traditional or contemporary bluegrass should find much to like here.
Railroad Town is available from several online music retailers.