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The Boxcars

Familiar With The Ground – 2016 (Mountain Home)

Reviewed by John Lupton

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The Boxcars underwent their first major personnel change in the summer of 2014 when founding member John Bowman departed to devote more time to his expanding ministry. Over the course of the band's first three releases, Bowman's vocals, fiddle and guitar work had been a major cornerstone of their immediate success. For their fourth release, the four remaining founding members are still on hand - Adam Steffey on mandolin, Ron Stewart on banjo (though he is also a fine fiddler), Keith Garrett on guitar and Harold Nixon on bass. Stepping in to replace Bowman is Gary Hultman, a young Dobro player in the style of Rob Ickes, and he brings a new dimension to the band's sound that is featured to good effect on "Familiar With The Ground."

The opening track, "Lungs" is a coal mining song penned by the late, great Townes Van Zandt, a writer not generally thought of as "bluegrass," but it's a fine way to kick off an album. One of the hallmarks of The Boxcars thus far has been their ability and willingness to "think outside the bluegrass box" and recognize material that works for them, regardless of what label has been applied to it. Another facet of their sound that sets them apart is that, unlike the classic "Monroe style" of the music, they do not rely on a high tenor as part of their basic harmony. Garrett's mid-level baritone is about as high-pitched as they get, and on this release some of the best vocal work comes from the lower baritones of Steffey, and particularly Stewart, whose almost gravelly, just-above-bass lead vocal on the prison ballad "Branchville Line" (which he wrote) makes for one of the standout cuts.

Garrett's vocal on his own composition, "Let The Water Wash Over Me," a mournful tune backed by fiddle (presumably by Stewart, though the credits do not specify) and mandolin, is worthy. From beginning to end, though, each track stands nicely on its own, no "fillers," and completely in character with what The Boxcars have shown us over the past six years.