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Pine Mountain Railroad chugs into new territory

By Rick Bell, September 2003

Five years of steady gigs at amusement parks, festivals and a spate of corporate events. Not a bad way to make a living for a bluegrass band, even in these post-"O Brother Where Art Thou" days.

But making a comfortable income from a successful and quite interesting five-year career wasn't enough for the bluegrass quintet Pine Mountain Railroad. The band decided in 2002 it was time to step out of the comfort zone they'd built for themselves and offer their licks to the world beyond company functions and a substantial, but, well, limited following throughout the Southeast.

Their debut on revered old-time West Coast bluegrass label CMH is a darn good start. Though Pine Mountain Railroad had released two albums on the regional Copper Moon label, their latest is something of a bold step for both the band and their new label.

"CMH has been out of using live acts for a while," said Pine Mountain Railroad co-founder Kipper Stitt while sitting on a tour bus with a blown thermostat.

Pine Mountain Railroad was about to set off on a Friday morning from their home base in Knoxville, Tenn., to the Bluegrass in the Park festival in Henderson, Ky., a good six-hour drive.

Despite the fact time was running thin, Stitt, who plays banjo, sings and writes for Pine Mountain Railroad, didn't seem to feel the urgency a broke-down bus would bring to the average person with a show just hours away.

"We'll hop in our cars and head to Henderson," he said casually as time grew short.

"CMH used to have all the bluegrass Opry stars in the '70s like Lester Flatt, Mac Wiseman and the Osborne Brothers. The Bluegrass Cardinals was the last band to sign with them," Stitt says of the seminal bluegrass band that featured arguably the strongest gospel harmonies ever recorded.

"But CMH is back into it, and fortunately we're a part of it. They signed us, Jimmy Martin and Larry Cordle. That's a pretty good start."

Pine Mountain Railroad's origins date back to 1998, but their meeting last year with executives of CMH likely puts them smack in front of a national audience. Pine Mountain Railroad pretty much had their new record in the can when they met up with CMH President David Haerle at the 2002 International Bluegrass Music Association convention.

"We were blown away by the power of their live show and the strength of their original compositions. Having Pine Mountain Railroad on the CMH label became a top priority for us," Haerle said in a statement after seeing the band at the annual conference.

Fortunately, Stitt said, the record was virtually complete when they met.

"We had the album 90 percent finished; they were looking for new acts, and we fit into what they wanted." Stitt said.

The new album, titled "The Old Radio," was released nationwide Aug. 12. Produced by bluegrass veteran Bill VornDick, who has worked with everyone from Béla Fleck to Alison Krauss, "The Old Radio" has a very commercial bluegrass appeal while maintaining its old time sensibilities.

"We knew of Bill's work and called him about working together," Stitt says, still lodged on the broken-down bus.

Soon after the meeting, they found themselves in VornDick's Nashville studio, recording the songs they'd already chosen, as well as their original tunes.

"Bill was amazing," Stitt says as he was told riding the bus was no longer an option. It would take an hour or so to load his gear from the bus to his car.

In any event, Stitt was on the road, his banjo and Dobro secured in the back seat.

"Bill brought 30-plus years of experience in the bluegrass arena," Stitt says while driving, munching on a Butterfingers candy bar. "He's one of the industry's top engineers and producers. He traveled for years with Marty Robbins. When you have someone in the business for so many years, he just knows how to record bluegrass music. He's won IBMA's and Grammys; he has the know-how to help us create a better sound."

And, there's an ulterior motive. Despite the earthy, back-porch feel veteran producer John Taylor brought to their previous "Knoxville Train" album, the band sought a different sound.

"We want to compete on a national level, and we think we're ready," Stitt says. "We've been together for five years and played more regionally for the most part. But the past couple years we've bumped it up."

Stitt estimates by the time the year is over, Pine Mountain Railroad will have played more than 200 shows. The band, which features Stitt; co-founder JimBo Whaley on lead vocals and guitar; Bill McBee on upright bass; Danny Barnes on tenor vocals and mandolin; and Clint Damewood on fiddles will have played virtually every major festival this year from Bean Blossom to MerleFest. Pine Mountain Railroad made the all-important West Coast swing over the summer.

"We did shows for the California Bluegrass Association," Stitt said. "We played the Summit Music Festival at Lake Tahoe, and we did house concerts in Folsom and Alameda."

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