Let's talk Tennessee cuisine. Folks in the Volunteer State are fiercely loyal to their native brands. For example, a blackberry cobbler would be ruin't if you topped it with Ben & Jerry's ice cream. No sir, put a big slab of Mayfield's golden vanilla in there; any purebred blue tick will lick the bowl clean. When it comes to java, don't even think of Starbucks. JFG coffee will do just fine. Made from scratch catheads (biscuits) will incite a bit of a discord among brethren. In East Tennessee White Lily flour reigns supreme, while the west is dominated by Martha White. But what about the sausage? No country breakfast would be complete without it. Like most Southern states, Tennessee is host to several fiercely rival brands.
Pine Mountain Railroad is a bluegrass band that hails from Pigeon Forge, TN, the tourist trap of the Great Smoky Mountains. Following an example set by Flatt & Scruggs who obtained a corporate sponsorship from Martha White Flour ages ago, PMRR received the backing of another home state institution, Odom's Tennessee Pride Real Country Sausage. Now that's of interest, because just up the road from Pigeon Forge is Kodak, a wide spot in the road that's home to Swaggerty's Farm Sausage. Odom's is headquartered in Madison, way over next to Nashville. I have no idea why PMRR by-passed, or was overlooked by, a sausage maker in their own backyard. But at every live show PMRR either begins or ends their set with the Tennessee Pride jingle:
It's real country sausage, yessiree
The secret of the goodness is the recipe
We start with fresh meat, it's really grand
Pure whole hog pork, the best in the land
Then we add a dash of X and a pinch of Z
For flavor and taste we add Y-9-D
A touch of Odom's magic blends all three
That's the secret of the secret recipe . . .
Think of it as comparable to the corporate ads that adorn the fenders of NASCAR racers; or, the adverts screened onto the jerseys of European football and ice hockey teams. On PMRR's latest release, Knoxville Train, the Tennessee Pride "Farmboy" logo dwarfs the label for tiny Copper Moon Records. There's little doubt as to who's got the greater vested interest. In fact, the album's finale is a rendition of the sausage jingle in all its fervor: "Pick up a pound or two of Tennessee Pride!" Yessiree. Odom's is so proud of this recording, the company has a sound file of the track on its web site.
At this point the reader will likely assumes this review will pan PMRR, if for no other reason than the brash commercialism. Well, think again -- it turns out that Knoxville Train is a heck of a bluegrass album. The disc is making playlists on a number of radio stations coast to coast, right alongside the likes of Yonder Mountain String Band and Nickel Creek. The difference is, PMRR has its road bed firmly dug into the hillside of traditional bluegrass, while taking some harrowing bends and twists through some unconventional territory.
Tacky as it may sound, "sausage" is a fairly descriptive metaphor for this album. PMRR has their range of influences, but those aren't worn on their sleeves. The stylistic nuances and blended into a non-specific mesh. For example, "Ballad of the Knoxville Train" is a bluesy, country song disguised as a bluegrass piece. Think Country Gentlemen. "Pick Up the Pieces" shows a clear regard for the smooth pop (read fake) grass of Alison Krauss. "The Sentence", a sprawling, six minute prison ballad, features progressive elements one might expect from Yonder Mountain String Band. The raucous "Drop Me Off Operator", with its blazing speed and structured harmonies, is as pure a hard-driving bluegrass anthem, a la Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs, as we've heard in awhile. But none of these comparisons are immediately obvious. The chord changes are fairly stock and predictable. What stands out here is the spunk, over-achieving push. With the exception of the Tennessee Pride jingle and one instrumental piece, all the tracks on Knoxville Train were penned by guitarist and lead vocalist Jimbo Whaley, for whom bluegrass ethos come naturally.
If you're ever stuck in a hotel room in Pigeon Forge on a rainy day and out of boredom thumb through the local phone book, you'll notice a large contingent of Whaley's listed in the directory. Jimbo Whaley's kindred have been in East Tennessee for generations. It's no surprise then that the flavor of that environment permeate his compositions. He's not an innovator, even if PMRR has an overtly contemporary sound. Instead, he infuses his work with a basic, old-time sentiment. Moreover, he's a terrific storyteller. On "Fly" Whaley vividly recounts (fictitiously, I suppose) sitting with his grandfather, watching a neighbor boy whom he describes as "120 pounds of pure will", chasing after a farmer's daughter. "The Foundation", inspired by an old graveyard, stands out at the best track on the album. It relates the tale of a church congregation plaintively supplicating on behalf of an afflicted girl:
You can hear their voices sing
You can hear the preacher shout
"Lord make this young girl better
Please take her fever out"
. . . Look down and read the tombstone
You won't believe your eyes
Says the fever took our daughter
The point of this song is difficult to shake -- begging for an extension of days, death inevitably comes to us, and generations look back and realize that life ". . . is a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." Cliff Damewood's droning fiddle work throws a fitting shadow over this tune.
"Emory Trail" is a memorial to the early settlers who scratched their way out of southwestern Virginia and over the mountains of North Carolina to settle what is now Tennessee. A fascinating instrumental composed by banjo-picker Kipper Stitt, it appears to begin in the overrated but nostalgic "sawmill" tuning of many old-time banjo numbers, before detouring in a series of progressive detours. The piece harkens back to "Little Sadie" then lurches forward to later innovations in one frantic, three-minute sweep.
A major reason why Knoxville Train succeeds is the sound. This record has an earthy resonance to it whereby one can tell it wasn't recorded in some Nashville penthouse. PMRR crossed the Tennessee Valley and traveled up Walden Ridge, the eastward ledge of the Cumberland Plateau, to the city of Harriman, TN. Long before Prohibition, Harriman was hailed as the "Utopia of Temperance." Six generations later, Harriman is classic railroad town, where lines of the CSX and Norfolk Southern converge. If you sit at local fast food joint, the windows rattle from the incessant clanking of boxcars as they're linked and rerouted through Emory Gap. It's a blue collar town with a history in coal, iron, and textiles. It's the place you'd by-pass en route to visit the Oak Ridge Nuclear Laboratory . . . or Pigeon Forge. But Harriman has a quaint, historic downtown. Knoxville Train was recorded in a studio on a back street -- a converted AM radio station, upstairs, above a local exterminator. The recording equipment is state of the art, but engineer John Taylor, a veteran of 40 some years behind the console, kept the sound clean but well-tempered. Far from shabby, Knoxville Train avoids sounding disgustingly slick. Taylor also managed to somehow reach outside the glazed windows of the studio and draw the small-town perfect atmosphere onto the disc. The album has a live vibe; PMRR sound like they're jamming on your back porch.
Pine Mountain Railroad plans to return to Harriman for future recording projects, and frankly I can't wait. Knoxville Train is a wonderfully enigmatic collection from a traditional bluegrass band still searching for its collective voice, but making the journey fun along the way. Purists and progressives alike will find this music easily accessible. So will those looking for an authentic, down-home experience . . . even if you prefer Swaggerty's sausage to Odom's.