The Boxcars – yeah baby!

This past Friday evening (5/14), I had the good fortune to catch The Boxcars at a small venue here in Roanoke. If you haven’t heard the name, you will surely be hearing it soon.

This is the latest bluegrass supergroup to form from the dissolution of another, in this case The Dan Tyminski Band, which shut down recently when Dan and Barry Bales returned to Alison Krauss & Union Station to record and tour. That left Ron Stewart and Adam Steffey without a performing vehicle, and they soon decided that continuing to work together was what they most wanted to do.

Before long, they had convinced Keith Garret and Harold Nixon, who had been working with Blue Moon Rising, to enlist in the new venture, along with John Bowman, who left JD Crowe for this new group.

Their lengthy set at The Kirk Avenue Music Hall was powerful – passionately performed, brilliantly executed and often downright hilarious. Those who follow bluegrass closely know these five men as virtuosic musicians, with Bowman and Garrett also regarded as stellar vocalists. I make that obvious point primarily to say that I expected nothing short of overall awesomeness from The Boxcars – and they still blew my hair back from start to finish.

Adam Steffey has been riding high as the King of the Mando Hill for some time now, and this new group gives him his best opportunity to shine in all his many years in bluegrass. I sat close enough to hear the band acoustically as well as through the sound system, and Adam’s downbeat chop at the beginning of the banjo solos was like a rifle shot. His solos were equally riveting, as one would expect.

Steffey is also a strikingly effective vocalist. His deep baritone has a gravelly poignancy especially well-suited to the plaintive songs he chooses, and while few may list him as being a truly gifted singer, his songs were consistently well-delivered and received.

For his part, Ron Stewart is widely regarded as his generation’s preeminent bluegrass artist, garnering kudos on both banjo and fiddle. I don’t mean that he can play both; he is among the very best on both. He opened the show on banjo and within a few songs, launched into a scalding version of Earl Scruggs’ Shuckin’ The Corn. Seated behind two budding young bluegrass musicians, I kept an eye on them them as well as the show, and the pure joy and wonder on their faces was as big a treat as the music itself.

Ron absolutely kills on banjo: tone, timing, note selection, attack, authority, consistency, appropriateness… All were spot on. Ron always begs to differ, but his playing was simply flawless.

And then he picked up the fiddle, which he destroyed as well. There is some sort of unfairness at work here, but such is life.

John Bowman played both fiddle and banjo, alternating on one as Stewart grabbed the other. Had a monster like Stewart not been in the band, Bowman would have shone that much brighter. He has long experience in the music, including stints with Alison Krauss, Doyle Lawson and The Isaacs before working for Crowe.

He shone mostly as a lead and tenor vocalist, no less than on a searing version of the Flatt & Scruggs classic, The Old Home Town. His banjo was mighty fine on that one as well.

I need to stop and give props to my Roanoke folks here… You know you are in a bluegrass crowd when the audience is singing along on an obscure number like The Old Home Town. And I mean on the verses. Rock on, Roanoke!

Bassist Harold Nixon has long been one of my favorites. His tone is big and round, and he has a terrific sense of time. As do all the guys in The Boxcars, he also has a great sense of humor which is expressed in some of the small, quirky but subtle rhythmic twists he throws in – often in response to something one of the lead instruments has played. Watching them all crack up at each other’s antics was always fun.

Harold is also a very capable audio engineer who is playing a big part in the recording of the band’s debut CD.

Every band ultimately rises and falls on the quality of their lead singer, and of the material they record. Here, the focus is on guitarist Keith Garrett, perhaps not as well known as the other members of The Boxcars, but a man to be reckoned with in bluegrass music. Keith is a stirring vocalist, and a gifted songwriter to boot. The most memorable numbers on the show were the ones he both wrote and sang, and it seems a safe bet to suggest that you will be hearing plenty of him on bluegrass radio in the latter part of this year.

Garrett is also a very capable rhythm and lead guitarist who, like Bowman, is somewhat overshadowed by the big guns in the band. Don’t sell him short, however. He is the real deal.

OK… you get the drift? I was heartily impressed by The Boxcars – even more than I had expected to be. Their show was crisp and well-paced, with just enough conversation with the audience to make a permanent connection.

Steffey handles most of the MC work, and he is a natural. His moments at the mic as far back as his days with Alison Krauss were always a huge hit, and he always had folks in stitches when he fronted the Tyminski shows last year. His delivery is honest and unpretentious; he really is a down-home country boy with a hilariously self-deprecatory view of himself and the bluegrass music world in which he dwells.

The big story of the night when I saw them last week was their recent adventure with their road van, affectionately known as The General Lee. It had stranded them on the highway returning from the Gettysburg Festival in Pennsylvania to their hotel in Maryland, and nearly prevented them from making the Roanoke date.

A wheel bearing was the culprit, as Harold Nixon explained…

“We started hearing a grinding sound so we pulled over and found that the front passenger side wheel was 10,000 degrees Celsius. We decided to ‘ease it’ two miles to a truck stop in Hagerstown, MD.”

Luckily for the band, two members (Stewart and Bowman) are qualified mechanics, so they figured that they would be able to replace the bearing first thing in the morning, and head on to Roanoke with time to spare.

When they started tackling the job, however, they found that the extreme heat had fused the bearing to the axle, so they began a frantic search for someone to come out with a torch and cut it loose. Fortunately, a torchbearer was found, the repair was made and the boys made it to Roanoke just fine.

Nixon sent along a few photos of the General Lee in disgrace…

When you see them next, be sure to ask about some of the interesting characters they met during this little adventure.

Don’t miss a chance to catch The Boxcars live. Their schedule can be found online.

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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.