The John Lowell Band showcases the Montana-based guitarist, songwriter, and singer on its debut album The Skalkaho Road (listen for pronunciation). He also forms half of Growling Old Men with Ben Winship and fronted Kane’s River. His eponymous group includes former New Vintage banjo player Julie Elkins, John’s bandmate in Kane’s River, mandolinist Tom Murphy, and Thomas Kaerner handling bass and resonator guitar.
The excellence of the playing and the songwriting distinguish this album. The high level of the guest musicians indicates the instrumental abilities of the band. Those guests include Infamous Stringdusters fiddler Jeremy Garrett on “Let ’Er Go,” an enchanting piece he wrote with Lowell, veteran fiddler Jason Thomas on a couple of songs, and noted Toronto banjo player Chris Coole. The band plays with outstanding taste and cohesion, naturally featuring Lowell’s guitar playing, deservedly praised in numerous reviews, as Elkins banjo picking has been.
This is a songwriter’s album that shows off Lowell’s work, which brings (as in the title track) both folk and western inflections to several classic bluegrass themes. Valerie Smith, Front Range, Cliff Waldron, and Bluegrass, Etc., have used his songs. Here, he composed half the 14 titles. Elkins co-wrote another, while Murphy adds two tunes.
Lowell has a lighter, softer voice than most male bluegrass lead singers. I would’ve liked to have heard more harmonies, especially trios. It was nice to hear Elkins apply her underappreciated vocals to “Gospel Plough.” The John Lowell Band proves themselves a strong ensemble, offering a very enjoyable album. (www.johnlowell.com)AM