The Boxcars roll into town

We’ve waxed enthusiastic several times about The Boxcars here on Bluegrass Today, and the release of their debut, self-titled CD on Mountain Home Records gave us another opportunity to do so in September when the first single dropped, and again in October during IBMA.

The band rolled into Roanoke last Saturday night, providing yet another occasion to spill hyperbole on their behalf. They performed before a sold-out house at the Kirk Avenue Music Hall – probably half of them pickers – ready for the sort of raucous, rowdy show that The Boxcars delivered in spades.

I’ve had several opportunities to watch these guys on stage, but this was the first since becoming familiar with the material from their record. They opened with the single, December 13th, and hit several others from The Boxcars along the way, interspersed with selections from the members’ various solo projects, and bluegrass chestnuts like Down The Road, Shuckin’ The Corn and Pretty Polly.

The band is centered around two legitimate bluegrass superstars, Ron Stewart on banjo/fiddle and Adam Steffey on mandolin, with one rising star (Keith Garrett), and two veteran sidemen (John Bowman on fiddle/banjo and Harold Nixon on bass) deserving of far more attention. Garrett is a writer and vocalist of particular skill, and Bowman’s tenor vocals (both lead and harmony) are the perfect counterpart.

Was it the ’75 New South that set the standard for two lead singers? Or maybe it was The later Stanley Brothers. In any event, it is a solid bluegrass tradition that has carried through Lonesome River Band right up to these Boxcars, and they play it to the hilt. Keith sings most of the leads, but John is prominently featured, as is Adam Steffey with his distinctive, growly baritone. Even Stewart gets a lead or two, leaving poor Mr. Nixon odd man out.

As strong as the singing is, the picking is what tore the roof off the joint in Roanoke. All five ‘Cars are solid players, with Stewart and Steffey leaving me straining with superlatives attempting to describe their efforts.

Adam has long been highly-regarded as a mandolinist, from the time he hit the national scene with Alison Krauss & Union Station in 1991, through memorable stints with The Isaacs, Mountain Heart and Dan Tyminski, plus a pre-AKUS gig with Lonesome River Band just prior to their mainstream ascendancy. He is a seven-time winner of the IBMA’s Mandolin Player of the Year award, and is the subject of a popular instructional DVD from AcuTab.

Steffey’s style is highly improvisational, relying heavily on the steady stream of eighth notes a la bluegrass banjo far more than double stops or tremolo. At the speeds on display at this show, he looked as though his head might explode on several songs, with the audience on the edge of their seats to see if he could pull it off yet one more time. Exciting stuff…

Stewart has the rare honor of being considered a “pickers’ picker” on both banjo and fiddle. I take the position that he is the finest bluegrass musician of his time, and would make the argument that he is among the top 5 in the history of the music. His influence on banjo playing is deep and profound, and the consensus among the several five stringers in attendance Saturday was that there have been none like him. Ron also has a banjo DVD from AcuTab – plus one for fiddle with another due shortly.

On both banjo and fiddle, Stewart merges the style and sound of the very earliest practitioners (Scruggs and Crowe on banjo; Warren, Shumate, Martin, Stoneman, et al on fiddle) and recombines them all with a precision, power and majesty that is wondrous to behold. (How’s that for superlatives?) It’s not that he ignores or eschews the more modern approaches – he has one of his own. His playing just sounds like he leaped from the 1960s to the present, but with the sort of huge tone that was rarely captured on old recordings.

Ron has been at this for some time, growing up as “Little Ronnie Stewart” working with his family band. He first broke out as a long-time member of the Lynn Morris Band, and went to serve an apprenticeship on fiddle with the great JD Crowe when Lynn’s stroke left her unable to perform. You could say that he was born to play bluegrass music.

In most any other band, Bowman’s fiddle and banjo work would stand out as exceptional, but he graciously accepts his place as “second fiddle” (and banjo) to Ron. This allows the band to feature Stewart on both instruments, and provide them a variety they would lose otherwise. But I think it is fair to say that John’s largest contribution is as a vocalist, and his soaring tenor was one of the more remarkable aspects of the show. This is his first venture in a true band setting, though he has worked before for such luminaries as Doyle Lawson, Alison Krauss, The Isaacs and JD Crowe.

Nixon is the quiet man in the group, never addressing the audience, and getting only a single solo turn with a delightful bass break on Clinch Mountain Backstep. Like most of the best bassists in bluegrass, however, he has a deep understanding of the music, and plays all the instruments himself. This sort of knowledge allows him to support each of players as they shine, and always with a powerful tone and crisp attack. I have enjoyed his playing for many years, from his time touring with Unlimited Tradition while Harold was still in high school, through his tenure with The New South and Blue Moon Rising.

But in the end, every band will rise and fall on its singing and material, and here is where Keith Garrett is indispensable. Bluegrass has boasted of some great lead singers and some great songwriters over its relatively short history. Sometimes, they even come in one package, though that is a much shorter list. Ronnie Bowman comes to mind in recent years, and Garrett is surely cut from the same cloth. Time will tell whether his career will ascend to the same heights, but if not, it won’t be for lack of aptitude or capability.

More than once on this page, we’ve delved into the necessary ingredients for an album that stands above the rest. All it takes is a stellar recording of exceptional performances on outstanding songs. That’s a fairly simple formula, but not so easy in its execution.

On The Boxcars, you see all the elements of a near-perfect recording. The performances are what you would expect from musicians of this caliber: virtuosic yet restrained, leaning against the envelope while remaining stylistically appropriate, and both passionate and searing throughout.

It is the choice of songs, however, that sets this project above so much of  what we’ve heard of late. 9 of the 13 tracks are band originals: 5 from Garrett and 4 from Stewart. The remainder come from such consistently strong sources as Ron Block and Marshall Wilborn, with a pair of keepers from first generation heroes Jim Eanes and Earl Taylor. They cover a wide range of “contemporary bluegrass,” with proper doses of the old home place (I Went Back Home Today and Log Cabin In The Lane) mixed in with unconventional love/relationship songs (You Can Take Your Time, Old Henry Hill and I Could Change My Mind).

For my money, the standout track is Hurtin’ Inside, a song of Garrett’s that tackles the scourge of depression, and the crippling effect it can have on its victims. The song is told in the first person, with the subject unable to figure out why his world seems so black. Anyone who has suffered from this disease, or dealt with someone who did, will recognize the emotions explored here.

Hurtin’ Inside:  []

It’s a triumph for any songwriter to capture something so complex in a four minute song, especially outside of the documentary, “story song” form. Well done, Keith!

Do I like these guys? Uh… yes I do.

Do yourself a favor and catch The Boxcars live, and pick up a copy of the CD. Or do your family and friends a favor and send a few out as gifts. They are that good.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.