John Driskell Hopkins has three great songs on this record, along with three or four good ones and a handful of forgettable stuff. The greatest of the great songs is the first, a rip-snorting foot-stomper called “Runaway Train” that might well be worth the price of the record all by itself. With slamming acoustic guitar work, rapidfire vocals and a voice that wells up from the bowels of the earth, Driskell Hopkins roars out the story of an out-of-control locomotive in a way that is genuinely thrilling. Ably backed up by bluegrass stalwarts Balsam Range, the song is as good as anything you’re likely to hear this year.
Alas, that’s the best you’ll hear on this record. There are, as mentioned, a handful of solid tunes—“The Devil Lives in a Mason Jar” sounds like a lost Tom Waits song, only easier to listen to, while “It’s Not OK” and “Shady Bald Breakdown” are both uptempo rave-ups that benefit from dexterous fingerpicking. But there’s some uninspired stuff here too, like the forgettable “Be My Girl” and the maudlin “Bye Baby Goodbye”. Ultimately, then, a record of highs and lows, with relatively little in the middle. Is it worth buying? Country and bluegrass fans will want to hear those highs. Just remember that few songs out there will be able to compete with that opening track.