“They’re really a bluegrass supergroup!” someone in the Boxcars’ camp said to me when I was scheduling an interview for their new release, It’s Just a Road.
There’s the rub, I thought, and I hadn’t even heard the record yet. I ask the guys how it feels being saddled with such a label as soon as we sit down to chat a week later.
“I think that some of the guys in the band are definitely icons in bluegrass, and I’ve been a fan of theirs long before we started this,” explains Keith Garrett, the Boxcars’ guitarist and lead vocalist. “But we don’t go around thinking, ‘Yeah, we’re a supergroup.’”
“Although we might all feel that way about the others,” adds Ron Stewart, the band’s banjo player extraordinaire and sometimes fiddle player. “These guys to me are just super pickers and singers. They’re at the top of the list, so I guess in that regard, yeah. I look around me and go, ‘Gosh, there are four other super pickers and singers here.’ But to say, ‘Hey! We’re a supergroup!’ No.”
Understandably, that’s a hat the Boxcars don’t want to wear. Still, so much modesty is a little surprising. In fact, the Boxcars’ unwillingness to crow about themselves is a defining feature of It’s Just a Road because it manifests in their playing.
There’s no grandstanding on this record. In the same way Ernest Hemingway wrote unadorned sentences to convey the power of the emotion he wanted to get across, the Boxcars refrain from superfluous embellishment to get the feet tapping. And in the same way Hemingway’s simple sentences had the weight of life experience behind them, the Boxcars’ restraint displays a supreme confidence that comes only after spending years honing one’s craft.
“Everybody has a lot of experience … so nobody’s trying to hotdog,” Stewart explains. “They’re playing what’s appropriate. And if that means playing one note, then that’s what you’re gonna get.”
It’s no surprise then that It’s Just a Road has a pleasantly relaxed feel to it. It’s reminiscent of Doc Watson’s first record in that as masterful as the playing is, there’s a somewhat laid-back air to it. Of course, there’s plenty of virtuosity, but it’s understated and often hidden under the obvious melodies or vocal lines — a quality that makes the album all the more engaging because there’s something deeply compelling about listening to musicians with dazzling technique rein it in to serve the song.
Adam Steffey, the band’s IBMA Award-rich mandolin player credits the vibe of the album to the fact that they recorded it at String Dog Studios in Mountain City, Tenn. — his in-laws’ basement.
“We weren’t looking at our watch going, ‘We have to have this wrapped up at a certain time.’ There are fast songs, slow songs, but it’s all got that comfort level,” he explains. “It just feels like, ‘OK, everybody’s doing what the song calls for.’”
One of the album’s key strengths lies in the songs themselves, which serve as a fine representation of the current state of modern-traditional bluegrass. Five of the album’s 12 tracks were composed by either Garrett or Stewart, and their originals flow into the covers, which flow back into the originals without a hiccup.
Asked if they did a lot of prep before they hit the studio, the question is met with enough laughter to make me feel like I’m on the outside of an inside joke.
“It was almost like we were doing a demo session,” reveals Steffey. He points out that of all the recordings he’s been a part of, none of them have gone off as effortlessly as this one and adds, “We were just in there playing.”
“That was the thing that I was amazed at while we were cutting it,” John Bowman, the band’s other vocalist, fiddle player and banjo-man says. “It was totally spontaneous. … We actually showed up and hadn’t even sent each other all the songs. Over the span of two days, we cut all the tracks, and the next day, we did 90 percent of the vocals. And it wasn’t like we shot for that. It just happened that way.”
Later that night at Nashville’s Station Inn, after our interview, I witness the spontaneous musicianship Bowman spoke of in action as the Boxcars played for nearly two and a-half hours with only a short break. Watching them, I see that what Garrett and Stewart said about being fans of the others is true. Every time one of the guys takes the spotlight, the others become his cheering section, reacting with the same unrestrained enthusiasm as the audience.
As they tear through the best version of “Whistlin’ Rufus” I ever heard, I recall something Steffey said earlier that afternoon. He explained how their common influences and love of bluegrass are their guiding forces and how he’s proud to be a bluegrass mandolin player.
“I can probably say this safely,” he assured me. “You won’t hear us three records from now go, ‘OK, this is our tribute to Nazareth!’”
The guys wrap up “Rufus,” and the crowd goes nuts. I lean back in my chair and try to imagine how the Boxcars would sound playing “Hair of the Dog.” As they launch into their next tune and start cheering each other on, it occurs to me that they would sound like… well, they would sound like a supergroup.