Founding members Muller and Sharon Horovitch, who began Boston's Southern Rail while completing graduate work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently were joined by Jim's brother and banjoist Paul Muller and mandolin/bass vocalist Bob Sachs.
The band, now pushing on past the 20-year mark shows no signs of slowing down, having just released "Wasting My Time," their second on Pinecastle.
Jim Muller, who works for a company manufacturing music gear, thinks the new disc "has broader appeal, better songs, and a more traditional sound due to the mandolin." The inclusion of Sachs has boosted the instrument into the forefront of their sound.
The song selection took more than a year. Paul Muller introduced them to "Freight Train #9," made popular by Jim Eanes. With a new arrangement, Paul Muller said "Let's try this one, but push up the speed and make it entertaining."
"40 Days, 40 Nights," written by Jim Muller had been recorded by the band before. With a change in key, the band breathed new life into an old gem from their family of songs.
Jim Muller's favorite track was the title song, which he says is "characteristic of what is perceived today as traditional bluegrass," describing the sound of newer bands in the genre.
For Muller and Horovitch, music acted as a diversion to the rigors of an MIT education. Informal picking sessions gave way to the desire to begin arranging songs themselves. They fell in love, married and continue to this day creating their own brand of bluegrass.
Originally from Virginia, Muller grew up around music. Most family members played music around the home. He started playing in the school band, and five years later picked up the guitar. Horovitch, originally from Montreal, had little exposure to the genre except for folk. Through Muller, she found her love of bluegrass and through the gift of a bass fiddle, found her new voice in music.
The band met Sachs via the internet about the same time Paul Muller came on board. Sachs worked on learning the band's material, and when asked what he would like to play said, "Carolina Lightning," which Jim says "is not your standard formulaic three-chords. We said 'you sure?' - he said 'yea,' so we started it off and BANG - he nailed it! Turns out he nailed all of them, so it was a no-brainer. The added plus is that he can sing too."
Both additions bring a wealth of experience to their respective instruments. Paul Muller has also penned songs previously performed and recorded by many including Southern Rail. Playing mandolin, fiddle and dobro brings extra diversity to Southern Rail.
Sachs has performed over the years with the likes of Melba Montgomery and David Grier.
The new members replace banjo player Dave Dick and Dobro player Roger Williams. Dick recently joined Salamander Crossing while Williams does session work.
Southern Rail does not draw specifically from any other artists, instead taking it all in collectively. That is apparent in Southern Rail's sound.
Jim Muller says, "A lot of musical inspiration doesn't come from individuals - it comes from listening experiences."
He also reflects on the way a song can have different meanings to those that bring a song home. "When you sing a song about Kentucky, it's not really about Kentucky. It's about the place you grew up, and the people you grew up with." It is that personal side that can really draw the listener in with Southern Rail. Perhaps that is why the band's sound defies direct comparison.
When asked where Southern Rail fits into the bluegrass genre as a whole, the consensus was just on the contemporary side of traditional.
Traditional in bluegrass meaning the old way - a point of frequent discussion and dissent within the bluegrass fan base. In defining contemporary bluegrass, Horovitch believes that it "depends on what region of the country you're using as a frame of reference," while Jim added that contemporary can be broadly defined if we look to the past.
Flatt & Scruggs, Ralph & Carter Stanley and Bill Monroe were all contemporary when forging new roads as they created songs now considered traditional. He would also reflect that the same happens in all genres of music.
Muller's philosophy for creating honest bluegrass music, while remaining true to the form is simple - "Be creative by not throwing more junk into the music. I like to describe it that if you dig a hole, you can make the hole wider, or you can make the hole deeper. I like to go deeper."
The fans are a huge consideration in how Southern Rail approaches their music. Jim Muller says that they are always working on new material for the sake of the fans - the ones that always return to the shows and expect to be entertained. Humor is an important part of that overall entertainment package and keeping the material fresh keeps the fans happy.
Horovitch says, "The entertainment part of the show has always been something we regarded as important because the audience wants to be entertained - they don't just want you to present your music to them."
The band also takes their music to listeners that haven't been exposed to bluegrass. Performing in schools, senior-centers, coffee houses, special events, and non-bluegrass festivals, they are able to connect on a different level.
Jim says, "One of our goals is to expand the reach of bluegrass outside of the bluegrass community. We play a lot of shows to people who don't regularly hear bluegrass."
That sense of community is important to Horovitch as well who feels that "the music is a good way to give back the friendship that the fans have shown us over the years."
Southern Rail will be out again this summer touring. In the past their schedule has taken them all along the east coast, from the Canadian maritime provinces, to Florida. The band also tries to head as far west as California once, or twice each year. The process of working up new vocal arrangements is often helped along during the longer road trips. A fine example is the new a cappella arrangement, "Jonah's Whale" on the new CD, which was born on the van ride.
"We're working about as much as we want to and still leave time to do other things. It surprises me that a lot of groups that give up don't realize that there can be that kind of balance," Horovitch says.
"There are a lot of ways succeed," Jim Muller says, "but one sure way to fail is to quit."