The Boxcars roll along

Here’s some discouraging news for any bands hoping for a turn in the spotlight during the 2012 IBMA awards show. The Boxcars, early favorites in a number of categories this year, are heading back to the studio next month and hope to have a new CD ready to sell by late fall – in time for awards consideration next year.

Like their debut album, which came out just before last year’s IBMA bash, the follow up project will be on the Mountain Home label. The hardest part, Adam Steffey told me Saturday, was meshing everybody’s schedules to find time to track.

Part of the problem is that the guys all have other commitments. John Bowman and Keith Garrett are teachers, Harold Nixon is a web designer, Ron Stewart is in demand as a session player, producer and engineer and Adam is on the faculty at East Tennessee State University’s bluegrass program.

Another part of the problem is self-made. The band has a heavy touring schedule this summer because of the success of the debut CD and heavy airplay of a handful of its songs.

“We never put a hard and fast number on it, but we’re way beyond where we thought we would be,” Adam said, noting that it’s never clear how something will go over or how fast a band will catch on. “Sometimes the wheels of bluegrass turn a little slower.”

True, but the Boxcars have one huge advantage over the average new band – solid, big-name talent at every spot on the stage, with pedigrees that made them a legitimate supergroup before they ever played a note when they got together in January 2010. Don’t tell them that, though, or you’ll get an aw-shucks response that seems genuine.

I was fortunate to attend the band’s CD release party and IBMA debut last fall in Nashville. I caught up with them again Saturday night, before a sold-out show in Falls Church, Va., celebrating the 10th anniversary of WAMU’s The Boxcars were solid last year. They’re even better now. The harmonies, for one thing, are crisper. Adam isn’t surprised. “With any five musicians, the more you play together, the more you gain a comfort factor,” he said. “I hope a year from now it’s even tighter.”

But some things haven’t changed from last September. Adam is still a human metronome on the mandolin, and when he and Harold, the bassist, are locked in, the atomic clock can’t do a better job keeping time. And Keith Garrett, one of the three best male vocalists in bluegrass, is still a chemistry teacher, dreaming of a day when music is his only job. “If it was Boxcars or bluegrass full-time, that would be awesome.”

And, when the Boxcars take the stage, it’s still all about the music. There’s no flash, no theatrics. They just stand there and play. And, man, can they play.