Iron Horse Pickin' on Pearl Jam

Bluegrass’ Iron Horse Pick on Pearl Jam This Time

Pearl Jam’s songs are too prescient to be ignored. Bluegrass kicks butt. Put them together, and voila! Iron Horse’s Pickin’ on Pearl Jam does just that.

Pickin' on Pearl Jam
Iron Horse
CMH Records
12 May 2023

Mixing traditional bluegrass instrumentation with garage rock or one of its many offshoots like punk or grunge is nothing new. Perhaps no one did it better than the Meat Purveyors 20-some years ago. Despite the distinct differences in the instrumentation, the songs and the way the vocals put themselves in the forefront share many similarities in style. Iron Horse (Tony Robertson, mandolin; Vance Henry, guitar, lead vocals; Anthony Richardson, banjo and Ricky Rogers, bass) understand this. Not long ago, the group released the album Pickin’ on Nirvana. Now they take a shot at covering Pearl Jam.

The Alabama-based quartet previously put out bluegrass albums dedicated to a host of different rock bands, including the Grateful Dead, the Black Keys, and the Killers. Pearl Jam seem an easy fit for this company. The angst-ridden lyrics and the Southern drawl share a natural affinity. They both possess a raw, emotional quality. Pain and joy seem as natural as breathing, although hurt is more common. The strum of the banjo or mandolin is as evocative as the feedback on electric guitars.

The best songs on Pickin’ on Pearl Jam are the best tracks—and that is just a matter of taste. There’s no “Jeremy”, which is surprising as this was Pearl Jam’s biggest hit. Iron Horse deliver the goods on songs on other material such as “Rearview Mirror”, “Even Flow”, and “Better Man” by emphasizing the reflective quality of the material. The players frequently employ speed to create excitement, especially on songs like “Once”.

There’s a big difference between the 1990s and now. What once seemed fresh can turn stale by not changing, like Pearl Jam’s older woman behind the counter. Iron Horse inject fresh spirit into the music. The energy of bluegrass music keeps things lively. Bluegrass vocals are more easily understood than grunge singing, and the songs’ sentiments, often about self-worth, are just as important today.

The COVID-19 pandemic is officially over in the US. The number of deaths, the lockdowns, and the horrible years have passed. But things are not normal or as they used to be. An album such as Pickin’ on Pearl Jam aims to make the present immediate. It looks forward by using past traditions. It recycles in the best sense of the word. Pearl Jam’s songs are too prescient to be ignored. Bluegrass kicks butt. Put them together, and voila!

Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder knew stuff like this could happen. He predicted it back in 1994 with “Corduroy”. Okay, not exactly, but the sentiment is the same. “Everything has chains,” he sang, “Absolutely nothing’s changed.” Vedder implied that words, his lyrics, continue to exist. They remain tied to him long after he pronounced them. They are metaphorically written in concrete. You can never be free of them. In this case, Iron Horse lassoed the material, transporting listeners to the present by looking backward. Nothing ever changes.

RATING 7 / 10