The Boxcars – Looking to Keep On Track

The Boxcars - Bluegrass Unlimited

The Boxcars

Most bluegrass fans would not 
 consider a coffee shop in a frigid, northern-most locale in the Midwest as a place of inspiration for one of the hottest bands on the circuit. But that is how the “super band” Boxcars came into being.

“We were working a date in Wisconsin, one of the last shows of the Dan Tyminski Band, in October 2009,” said banjo player and fiddler Ron Stewart. “We knew Dan was going back with Alison on tour, and Adam [Steffey] and I went to a Starbucks, throwing around ideas about what we could do. We could go be sidemen somewhere, or we could start something. I love playing music with Adam and we came to the thought of putting something together.”

While that may sound like a humble beginning, don’t be fooled. Stewart and Steffey are at the top of their respective games in the bluegrass world. Steffey, IBMA Mandolin Player Of The Year for the eighth-time. Stewart, IBMA’s current co-Banjo Player Of The Year (tied with Kristin Scott Benson), is arguably the best bluegrass banjoist in the world and a highly sought-after session musician. Both could have called it quits, gone home to do studio work and still have their place cemented among the genre’s all time greats.

“We had joked about it, but when we got serious, I was thrilled,” said Steffey. “We knew it could be something special.”

Before the year was done, bass player Harold Nixon, multi-instrumentalist John Bowman and guitarist/vocalist Keith Garrett had been added to the mix. The group started touring in 2010 without a recording, but managed to get out a self-titled release just before IBMA and by early 2011 the album was near the top of the charts, maintaining three singles at the time in Top 25 charts.

While it may have looked like things just fell perfectly into place, there was a lot of work and scrambling to be done. And of course, with all the big names filling out the stage slots, the whispers began about raiding other groups.

“This wasn’t stealing bandmembers,” Stewart said. “I knew Harold [Stewart was also Nixon’s best man in his wedding] from my days with J.D. Crowe, and he was not working full time [in music]. Adam is longtime friends with John. Harold brought up that Keith might be interested.”

Garrett, a founding member of Blue Moon Rising and the final piece to the Boxcar puzzle, concurred.

“Blue Moon Rising was more of a part-time gig,” he said. “Harold wanted to be full time, and he knew I did too. When my name got thrown in the hat, I was excited from the start to play with these guys.”

One unusual aspect of the group is their versatility. It is not often you find a band where each member can step up and take on lead duties.

“Vocally, the band is really cool,” Stewart said. “We’ve got five singers, even though I’m not really including myself as singer. I love that aspect. That gives us variety, and a lot of combinations which is a big plus for us. Keith can handle the lead duties on his own, but there is something to be said for having more than one singer, and I think people will enjoy that variety.”

The Lineup

The New York Yankees of the early twentieth century had Murderers Row, and it is probably safe to say the Boxcars lineup is as musically formidable.

Stewart, grew up in Paoli, Ind., in a family band. He made his name with the one of the strongest groups of the 1990s, the Lynn Morris Band, and followed that with a long stint on fiddle with J.D. Crowe and the New South. Not only is he a partner with his own line of banjos (Yates), he’s inspired an entire generation of young professional banjo players. He captured IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year in 2000, and has worked with supergroup Longview for years. In his more than two decades in bluegrass, Stewart has become a highly sought-after session musician and producer. When Krauss took time off to tour with Robert Plant, he jumped at the chance to play banjo for the “Dan Band,” a dream gig with Steffey, Barry Bales and Justin Moses, along with Tyminski. All the players in that scenario knew the prospects were short term. However, that situation allowed a more permanent idea to take shape.

“There are five of us, it is not one and then all the others, it is all of us, and that is the way we want it, five equal parts,” Stewart said. “Everybody has their thing, the thing they do well and we don’t have to have any big pow-wows. We want to work as much as we can. No one got into this looking for a one or two-year thing.”

Steffey, in addition to a whole mantel full of awards, has been on a roll of sorts for the last several years. In addition to working with likes of Krauss, Dusty Miller and Mountain Heart in his career, he had a critically acclaimed solo release, One More For The Road in 2010, which some publications rated as the best bluegrass album of the year. He said that even with the big names on board, there were factors that made the Boxcars anything but a guaranteed success.

“We were tickled with the material we are doing, but you never know until it is out there. No one knew what the five of us would sound like together,” he said. “We went a whole festival season without a recording. And realistically, the first two years, you know you have to do whatever you can to just make it work.”

Bowman, of Ararat, Va., may have kept a low profile over the years, but came to the band with an impressive resume. He played guitar and sang high lead/high tenor with Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver in the early 1990s before working a year with Krauss playing guitar and singing baritone. He then worked 12 years with the Isaacs, handling guitar, fiddle, and banjo duties as well as some vocal work. In 2007, he joined J.D. Crowe and the New South as the replacement on bass for Nixon.

His dad Bobby was an early influence on guitar and Bowman listened to a lot of Bill Monroe and Osborne Brothers growing up. He even had a neighbor, Johnny Viperman, who played with Monroe in the 1950s.

He was originally sought after by Stewart and Steffey to play guitar, but his skill set on several instruments and selfless attitude made way for Garrett to join.

“I was having fun playing with J.D. Crowe, but I really wanted to play guitar,” Bowman said. “When Adam called and said they were going to try Keith out, as soon as I heard him sing, I knew we needed him. I mentioned I could play fiddle or whatever it took to make it work.”

Stewart said Bowman could do a bit more than “play fiddle or whatever.”

“We talked to John about playing fiddle and his backup just blew me away the first night, he can play backup like nobody’s business, he’s so good with his choices and fills, I really enjoy his fiddle playing.”

Garrett may not be a household name, but has one of those voices that causes bluegrassers to take note when a song comes on the radio. His is a distinctive sound—not one that fits neatly into the category of traditional, progressive or country—but can cover all those niches.

“When I first started singing, I was trying to emulate Tony Rice, Keith Whitley, Larry Sparks,” Garrett, a native of Citico, Tenn., said. “Often, when you try to sing ‘like’ someone and hear it played back, you find out you don’t sound anything like them. I’d listen to Steve Wariner and Ronnie Bowman, and listen and sing and do it in a way that was more natural for me. After years of following different singers, and stealing licks and ideas here and there, you find you have your own style.”

Garrett’s dad William taught him to play guitar at age 13 and along with his mother Mary, they formed a group to play in churches. He got his professional start playing at Dollywood in the early 1990s and at the end of the decade formed Blue Moon Rising with Chris West, Justin Moses and Tim Tipton. He played guitar and mandolin for the group as well as taking turns with vocals. That is also where his much appreciated songwriting skills began to develop.

“I was influenced by Chris, who is a great songwriter, and after all those years of playing covers, it was nice to do songs no one has ever heard,” Garrett said. “I don’t write very often, but I’ve accumulated a lot of songs. Sometimes I’ll think of something riding down the road, sometimes I’ll have a melody and an idea and try to nail them together. Inspiration sometimes comes from different places. When I wrote ‘Angeline’ [with BMR] I was trying to write a song for my wife, Angie. She used to tease me about writing about murders and killings and drinking, so that was my attempt at a love song.”

Nixon, who keeps the group in time, may be the youngest in the group, but is certainly not unknown on the touring circuit. He got his start in the mid-1990s with John Cosby and the Bluegrass Drifters and later with Sam Wilson. He moved from there into Unlimited Tradition, playing with future banjo builder and underrated musician Steve Huber as well as one of today’s top resonator guitarists in Randy Kohrs. He later worked with Dave Evans and with Crowe in the New South.

“I’ve never actually officially joined a band until now,” the Winchester, Ky.-born Nixon joked. “It just seemed that over the years, people would say, ‘Hey, you want to come play with us for a while?’ With the Boxcars, I knew that musically, this group would kick my butt. I was musically drawn to it, but more importantly, personally drawn to it. John was really the only one I didn’t know, but he’d been bragged on a whole lot and is a really good fellow. There is a really good chemistry here.”

Bowman echoed the quick bonding of the group both in stage presence and friendship. “I’ve been around long enough with bands to know chemistry, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to play with these guys. There is a common thread both musically and personally. There’s not going to be people running around doing things they shouldn’t, I want no part of that. A big mistake some groups make now is they play and don’t like to talk to the people. That’s been one reason for Doyle Lawson’s success—he makes good music, and he’s out there for the fans.”

 The album

When it came time to hit the studio, the group chose the home studio of Ricky Wasson, lead vocalist for Crowe and former bandmate of Stewart, Nixon and Bowman. For Steffey, the talent was great, but in the end, was not going to keep the band in business. The group’s early signature seems to be heavily on strong storytelling, covering topics reminiscent of dealing with depression to a Shawshank Redemption – inspired tune to a life on the road song.

“It all boils down to what kind of material you’re doing, how much original material do you have,” the Kingsport, Tenn., native said. “I knew Ron had some stuff, and found out that Keith was an incredible writer. I’ve not heard anything the two of them have written that I’ve not liked. They started pulling stuff out and we were saying, ‘That’s going on the record. That’s going on the record…’ Even the standards we did hadn’t been worked to death. When I heard ‘December 13,’ that stuck out to me, and so did ‘I Went Back Home Today’ as well as ‘Hurtin’ Inside.’ These three [two from Garrett, one from Stewart] hit me as strong tunes that didn’t sound like anyone else.”

Fans apparently agreed. Within a month of the release, the album was in the Bluegrass Unlimited Top 10, and in early summer 2011, all three of those songs were solidly in the magazine’s Top 25. It was at number one for two months and stayed on the charts for the better part of a year, and was represented all across the IBMA nominations.

“According to the playlists, the deejays are not focused on one song, they’re playing a lot of these tunes,” said Steffey. “That can be good or bad. People don’t know what to expect.”

Stewart had been sitting on “I Went Back Home Today” since the 1990s, and also takes up the unusual role of lead vocalist in another song he authored, “The Hard Way.”

“It is autobiographical to a certain degree,” Stewart said. “I wrote it right after we decided to do the band. Everything I’ve ever done has been done the hard way, and when you go that way, you certainly know what you’ve got. When you decide you’re going to do something and stick it out, there’s something to be said for that.”

Nixon said that not having a dominant song on the CD might be a blessing in itself.

“It is getting a lot of tracks played, and I’d rather have a bunch of songs with staying power than have just a number one song and that’s it. I’m more proud of this album than any I’ve been a part of before. I really took pride in it, felt a partnership in it. I want this thing to last, one of the things we all talked about when we started was longevity. I hear people ask if we’re going to stick together. We want this to last.”

The group had a lot of interest from recording labels when word got around about the formation. Several of the musicians had worked with Mountain Home Records and the choice turned out to be a good one.

“They’ve been killer,” Stewart said. “They have done an amazing job promoting it, and just getting it out before IBMA last year took them going into high gear.”

Steffey credited that effort with getting the Boxcars off to solid start.

“Everybody has an opinion about IBMA, but it has proven to me that for a new group, nothing is better,” he said. “We did a couple of things there, including a showcase. We got to play, talk to promoters, meet radio people—even though we all had the experience, we were no different than any other new band. It really helped with bookings, and I know there were places we booked directly due to IBMA. We also have to give credit to [booking agent] Mike Drudge for getting us booked and off to a great start.”

The band’s stage show has evolved and seen changes in song selection and interaction in just a few short months. Fans coming out to hear as much music as possible crammed into a set won’t be disappointed.

“We want to focus on the songs—the songs and the performance,” Garrett said. “Now, I think Adam [who emcees the shows] is pretty funny onstage, but the focus of the entertainment for us is through the music. We feel more comfortable with playing and singing, and there are still a lot of people that appeals to.”

In an era of bluegrass music when changes in bands seem to come with the changing seasons, many musicians today avoid answering questions about how long the string will take to play out. Stewart seems to think he’s found his last stop.

“If I have my way, I’m done. This isn’t an all-star gathering that will be gone in a year. I don’t see anywhere else I would ever want to go.”

Steffey takes it a step further.

“People may think that this has all come easily from the first time we got together, but it’s been a lot of work. Everyone in the group is a veteran musician and there were/are no unrealistic ideas about what to expect. To all of us, it’s about the music,” he said. “We don’t ever want to come across as fake or plastic or give the appearance of trying to manipulate fans in any way. We want to record and perform live music as well as we can possibly create and can only hope that the people that hear it will enjoy what we do. Bluegrass music has the most loyal fans you will find anywhere and have already shown a great deal of support to this band. We certainly don’t take this for granted and hope that we can entertain these and a lot of new fans for many years to come.”

The Boxcars won the award for Emerging Artists Of The Year at the IBMA Awards show in Nashville this year, as well as the award for Instrumental Group Of The Year.

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