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Pine Mountain Railroad chugs into new territory

By Rick Bell, September 2003

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Indeed, the band has showed off their skills to plenty of people. Frequent dates at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., as well as events like the Indiana Blueberry Festival, which Stitt says drew some 500,000 people, have helped develop a loyal following.

One thing that surprised Stitt during their West Coast tour: The band plays the official theme song for Odom's Tennessee Pride Real Country Sausage. In fact, they usually open or close a show with the theme. Yet nary a slice of Odom's bacon or link of sausage could be found along the Left Coast.

"They're supposed to be in the Super Wal-Marts and in some restaurants out there," Stitt said. "We didn't go into every one, but we didn't come across any."

Odom's, which is still part of a pretty fierce rivalry among regional sausage companies, is a staple throughout the Southeast. To further the brand - and the band - name, Pine Mountain Railroad's voices ring loud and clear every week hawking Odom's on the Grand Ole Opry.

"People here have heard the theme for years," he said. "They had a big campaign throughout the Southeast after we recorded it, and it's been played at least 15,000 times.

"The theme's been around a long time. Before us, the Louvin Brothers did it. People know and recognize it."

Jingles like the Odom's theme and corporate events have played a major role in getting Pine Mountain Railroad's train running. In fact, if it wasn't for a corporate event promoting tourism in the Pigeon Forge area, Pine Mountain Railroad's fire may never have gotten stoked.

Stitt and Whaley were working for separate hotels in Pigeon Forge - the tourist trap of the Great Smoky Mountains - in the late 1990s when they were to attend a tour operators convention in Milwaukee.

Before the big convention, the local delegation assembled to find ways to schmooze the honored guests. Stitt hit upon a plan that would be representative of the area.

"I raised my hand at the meeting and said, 'It'd be cool to do Smoky Mountain bluegrass-style music; I play the banjo. Maybe we can pull something together."

Whaley and former member and co-founder Mike Glenn immediately piped up, noting they played guitar and sang some.

Though the tour group was skeptical about such a parochial approach, the three nonetheless agreed to meet and jam a bit.

"We got together at a hotel and had our first practice," Stitt recalls.

"None of the three was exactly proficient musicians; Stitt recalls Whaley "thumbed around" on the guitar, while Glenn had never before played bluegrass. Stitt nonetheless brought in his upright bass and showed him a few things.

"But we were all into it," he says. "I'd played since I was 12, but I'd gotten out of it; I never dreamed I'd play again."

Stitt recalls that Whaley had a special drive. He took to music like no other, he says.

"He woodshedded it," Stitt says. "He'd practice three or four hours every night. Right now I think he's one of the best rhythm players in bluegrass."

But something else happened that clinched their validity as a fledgling band.

"Our voices blended," he says. "Right there I knew we could do something with this. Mike had a pure tenor voice. When we sang our first couple songs, I thought, man, this could be something cool."

When they finally auditioned, the tourism board was sold. To boost their confidence, they literally traveled to a nearby mall in Gatlinburg, Tenn., opened their guitar case for tips and began picking. By the third song they had a huge crowd gathered around them - so much so, shop owners pleaded for them to move along.

"By the time the convention rolled around, we were a full-fledged band," Stitt says. "It's a rags to riches story; although we haven't seen the riches yet. But it was humble beginnings, and folks enjoyed what we did, so we decided to pursue it."

They bowled over a convention crowd in Milwaukee, then landed a steady gig at Dollywood where Pine Mountain Railroad is still a staple in concert. Five years and two records later, the band is busy promoting their new release.

There's plenty to like about the new album, but what stands out is Pine Mountain Railroad's nod to a particular big-hair arena rock band of the 1970s. While Journey is about as far-removed from bluegrass as REO Speedwagon or Kansas, Pine Mountain found enough in their song "Don't Stop Believin'" to put it to the new album.

"I've always listened to a lot of genres," Stitt says. "I heard that song one day and thought, 'We could take that song within a bluegrass timing.' I could hear it. As I listened I thought that would work out."

The other band members, while not outright skeptical, weren't exactly sold on the idea of dredging up a '70s rock anthem and performing it in bluegrass style. So they let it lie for a while, Stitt says.

"A year later we pulled it out, and it all fell together," he says. "It sounded really cool, and it was perfect live. When we'd do the song, you could see people would recognize it, but couldn't put their finger on it. Then finally they'd go, 'Hey, I know that song.'"

Older bluegrass fans who didn't recognize the song liked it just because of the harmonies, he says.

It's certainly not unusual to hear bluegrass bands doing off-the-wall rock songs these days. CMH, in fact, has built part of its reputation lately with the "Pickin' On" series, which features bluegrass renditions of artists ranging from the Doobie Brothers to Widespread Panic to Pink Floyd. The series will go full-on heavy metal later this year with its release of "Fade to Bluegrass: The Bluegrass Tribute to Metallica" done by Alabama bluegrass band Iron Horse.

"We've heard bands do 'Proud Mary' for years," Stitt says. "I feel like us doing the Journey song was one of the things that got CMH interested in us."

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