Fair River Station – Back to Bluegrass
“Hard times are hanging ’round my door,” Wayne Turnage sings on the opening of Fair River Station’s 16 Cuts, the band’s debut disc on Black Dog Records. Listening to his husky, time-worn voice, it’s not hard to believe. He’s on disability — “that’s not for mental,” he chuckles — and he plays bluegrass, and of the two, it’s the latter that’s arguably the more serious obstacle to financial success.
Turnage, the oldest of the quartet, founded Fair River Station in 1995; its members include his nephew Sammy Matheny (bass), Thomas Moss (banjo), and Edd Stifflemire (dobro/guitar), and it is a virtual paradigm of moderately successful regional bluegrass outfits. They have an old bus, and they work the festivals in a four or five state area around Turnage’s home in Monticello.
Their repertoire spans a broad range of sources, driven more by what they happen to run across and like than by any consideration of image or stylistic purity; the songs on the album, which adds new recordings to a selection of material from two earlier cassette releases, run the gamut from Ralph Stanley and Lester Flatt to Merle Haggard and Vince Gill. Turnage has written a few himself — three on 16 Cuts — but they don’t come easy: “A lot of times I can get a few lines and then I can’t put anything else with it, and I kind of lose interest,” he says ruefully.
Don’t take that as a lack of commitment, though. Turnage is serious about the music, and says he “would do it for a living if the opportunity presented itself.” As it is, they’ve been on WSM’s Midnight Jamboree at the invitation of the Osborne Brothers, and though he admires contemporary bluegrass big dogs such as the Lonesome River Band and Blue Highway, Turnage carefully adds that “we just try to do things our own way.”
That way is built around soulful, throaty vocals and a degree of instrumental skill which will come as a surprise to anyone unfamiliar with bluegrass. The band’s members are hard-working guys — Matheny drives trucks and Moss works on them, while Stifflemire is a town clerk over in Grove Hill, Alabama — but this is a music where proficiency is built-in, and the contrast between a musician’s down-to-earth appearance or demeanor and his subtle, finely detailed picking is remarkable only to newcomers.
“I’ve been playing bluegrass all my life,” Turnage says. “I came from a large family; just about all of the older ones played and sang, and my mom did, too. I grew up in it. After I got married I stopped for a while, like a lot of folks do, but I got back into it pretty heavy in the early ’90s. I love playing festivals and getting out and meeting people, so I just decided I was gonna do it. I wanted to try to do things that I wanted to do.”