On their latest album, Small Towns, Stillhouse Junkies have curated a collection of songs bearing the imprint of the area around Durango, Colorado, that the three members of the band now call home.
Products of small towns themselves, guitarist Fred Kosak, fiddler Alissa Wolf, and bassist Cody Tinnin met in Durango at jams after the three moved back west from jobs on the other side of the country. After forming the band, they began incorporating the specific places nearby and along their tour schedule into their music. What results is a bluegrass album with a definite western flair musically and lyrically.
The themes of the album touch a chord with anyone familiar with love, loss, and longing. The actual place names — Haskell Town, Ridgway, Leadville — and the natural details — lupines and columbine, canyons and cataracts — give the songs a strong sense of place and authenticity. The songs conjure images of silver mines, railroad tracks, and drams of whiskey. The instrumental composition and the distinctive harmonies of the trio lend a southwestern flavor to their bluegrass.
The album opens with “Moonrise Over Ridgway,” as the rider at the center of the narrative races against the clock to meet a man bringing “the doctor’s tonic” as antidote to the “fever in the town,” without which, he says, “I’ll be burying my girl.” All the sights and sounds — bugle calls, drawn guns, a train’s rumble — place the song in a world of cowboys and hombres as the moon disappears from the sky.
The track that follows, “Over the Pass,” also conveys a sense of urgency, emphasized by the repetition of lyrics: “Mountain so high, Mountain so high … Horses look tired, horses look tired …” as a traveler crosses a mountain pass, outrunning the rain foreshadowed by rolling thunder, trying “to get back to [his] baby … gonna make it or die.”
“Evergreen” opens with an a cappella gospel intro featuring the trio’s tight three-part harmony, then adds instrumentation behind Kosak’s vocals about returning home after 17 years spent traveling.
The arrangements on the album strike the perfect balance between the vocal and instrumental dynamics of the trio together and solo spotlights. With all but one track written by members of the band, they alternate lead vocals, but all contribute to the clear harmonies.
The one cover on the album, Fleetwood Mac’s “Never Going Back Again,” opens with Tinnin’s bass licks and features Wolf on fiddle at her improvisational best. Stillhouse Junkies’ harmony throughout the song offers a fresh take on the rock classic.
Wolf sings lead on “El Camino,” a love song to the one that got away — a used car named Jolene purchased for “a stack of 20s” in Vermont before coming to a bad end in Telluride. With Becky Buller, the album’s only guest artist, joining Wolf on double fiddles, the song evokes the nostalgia of road trips, playing Patsy Cline on cassette tape and “pushing the limit of adrenaline and gasoline.”
While unmistakably bluegrass at its heart, Small Towns incorporates element of blues and Americana, offering up a taste of western swing in “On the House” and a Celtic ballad in “Haskell Town,” Tinnin’s tale of the impact of World War I on one small town. Listeners can expect a riveting ride through the terrain Stillhouse Junkies bring to life in their music, and a confirmation of why the group was voted the 2021 IBMA Momentum Band of the Year.
Stillhouse Junkies’ Small Towns is out Sept. 9 on Dark Shadow Recording.