There’s something particularly impressive about any rookie ensemble that not only sounds fully vetted their first time out, but can also boast a sound that’s fresh and finessed all at the same time. Although New Jersey’s Magnolia Street String Band traces its origins back to 2013, Wrong Side of the Rain, their debut album, was still some six years in the making.
Now comprised of Paul Prestopino (dobro and former backing musician for Peter, Paul and Mary, The Chad Mitchell Trio and others), Bobby Baxmeyer (banjo, dobro, mandolin, vocals), Matthew Backes (vocals, mandolin), Sheila Shukla (vocals, guitar), and Ron Greenstein (bass), the band has gigged steadily since 2014, appearing at venues ranging from festivals and fairs to hootenannies and honky tonks. Their sound taps the traditional but finds a common connection in covers of contemporary classics as well. The combination helps account for a sound that bears a distinctive reverence for the roots, but also pays homage to the original grassicana ethic of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Think the Grateful Dead, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the New Riders of the Purple Sage, and other hippie harbingers of that earlier era.
Still, unlike their aforementioned predecessors, the members of the Magnolia Street String Band don’t dabble with the formula. Their takes on tried and true classics — Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter’s cowrite, Brown-Eyed Women, Johnny Cash’s sturdy standard, Big River, Peter Rowan’s stoner anthem, Lonesome L.A. Cowboy, and the venerable traditional hymn, Poor Wayfaring Stranger — maintain a decided deliberation and commitment to purpose. In other words, they play it straight, even when extolling the virtues of “smoking dope, snorting coke” as expressed in the lyrics of the Rowan tune.
Indeed, they convey an unwavering earnestness that underscores their image as tireless troubadours. The band’s originals, particularly Backes’ two contributions, Wrong Side of the Rain and Be My Friend Tonight, imbue their rustic ramblings with a decidedly personal perspective. Likewise, the exceptional instrumental, Jesse McReynolds’ Dixie Hoedown, finds the five wholly committed to the task at hand, and particularly proficient at that.
It’s rare to find an outfit so determined to pursue a signature sound that effectively bridges past and present. Yet on the strength of this single album, Magnolia Street String Band has ascended into the upper tier of today’s new bluegrass vanguard. Assured and sincere, Wrong Side of the Rain appears to be a sunny indication of things yet to come.