Southern Rail: Genre-Bending Bluegrass
Bluegrass is one of the true American musical gems. It’s mountain music, straight and strong. Guitars, mandolins, banjos and upright basses have fans dancing from the get-go.
That’s what’s in store for fans and not-yet-fans as Southern Rail steams into Haverhill’s New Moon Coffeehouse March 21 for its unique blend of Americana.
The band is anchored by Jim Muller and Sharon Horovitch, a husband and wife team playing together since the 1970s.
“We’ve had a lot adventures together,” Horovitch said with a laugh.
The band has been playing for decades, but this lineup — Muller on guitar, Horovitch on acoustic bass, Richard Stillman on banjo and John Tibert on mandolin — has been performing together for about three years.
“If you have a group for a long time, there are always personnel changes,” Horovitch said. “People get married, they move, they graduate or whatever. Our banjo player (Rich Stillman) has been with us probably a total of 15 years, but not all consecutively. We call him the Grover Cleveland of banjo players because of two non-consecutive terms of office. Most recently, he’s been with us about eight years.”
The band members all hail from eastern Massachusetts and the Worcester area. Muller said it wasn’t always that way, as previous versions of the band featured — at various times — players from Maine, Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina and New Hampshire.
“Scheduling was always interesting during those times,” he said. “We are delighted with our current players and the fact that they are all local sure makes practicing easier. And we aren’t beholden to airline schedules for our performances.”
Southern Rail mixes and matches its song selections. During any given concert, they can offer up old traditional tunes, bluegrass gospel tunes, progressive bluegrass numbers or originals written by band members. And they often throw in some unexpected surprises.
“We do a smattering of bluegrass standards, but not really very many of them,” Horovitch said “And apart from the original tunes, we also pull in from other genres. We’ll do a Nitty Gritty Dirt Band tune or a Gillian Welch tune or a Paul Simon tune.”
“We do a lot of original material,” she said, adding that everybody in the group writes songs.
For a Christmas concert with Boston Men’s Saengerfest Chorus in December, for instance, Muller wrote a song especially for the performance.
It’s important to keep the genre evolving, he said.
“It has been a traditional challenge for bluegrass musicians, even going back 25 or 30 years ago, to find new material instead of reworking the same stuff that’s been around for 40 or 50 years now,” Muller said. “So yes, we actually write a lot of material.”
Southern Rail’s performances are known for their high-energy, riveting harmonies, humor and stellar banjo, mandolin, and guitar solo work. The band celebrated more than three decades of performing with the release of Southern Rail’s 12th recording, a live DVD entitled “Southern Rail Saturday Night.”
The band’s recordings have climbed to No. 11 on Bluegrass Unlimited’s Top Thirty Single’s Chart and have hit No. 1 on a number of radio stations across the nation. Their songs have graced Bluegrass Unlimited’s Top Thirty Singles Chart for a combined total of 32 months. One of Southern Rail’s earlier releases, a special bluegrass gospel compilation entitled “Glory Train,” was nominated for Best Gospel Recording of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association.
While most of the band’s performances are in the region these days, they have toured extensively in the past. They’ve played the Deep South, the far west, and places in between. Large festivals such as the Strawberry Music Festival in Yosemite, Calif., Bluegrass Canada in Ontario and the Escoheag Cajun & Bluegrass Festival in Rhode Island gave them the opportunity to play before thousands and thousands of music lovers.
“I’m from Virginia” Muller said, “and down there there are dozens of small festivals all over the place, and, of course, some large one. It’s endemic. It’s the local music form. It evolved in the south. It’s part of the culture. Bill Monroe is from Kentucky, but it’s spread out through the south because it touches people’s lives.”
And the genre has changed much since Monroe popularize bluegrass, Muller said.
“If you want to get picky about it, bluegrass was developed by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys but of course there were three or four first-generation groups that started playing this style,” he said. “Since, especially in the last 15 or 20 or 25 years, there’s been a really big increase in the way you play it. Some (styles), people wouldn’t call bluegrass but it is definitely Americana. Bluegrass per se is purely American.”
— By Joel Barrett
Photo: Southern Rail members, from left, John Tibert, Sharon Horovitch, Jim Muller and Richard Stillman perform in Wolfeboro, N.H. (Ken Tibert/Courtesy photo)
MEET THE BAND
JIM MULLER, guitar and lead vocals
Muller was born and raised in Richmond, Va. He is the band’s principal lead singer and songwriter. His distinctive lead vocals and offbeat humor have become one of the group’s trademarks. A guitarist for more than 40 years, he is also known for his polished flat-picking and rock-solid rhythm. Also a respected staff-writer for Bluegrass Now Magazine.
SHARON HOROVITCH, acoustic bass and harmony vocals
Aggressive, creative and irrepressible, Horovitch is known for her limber bass work and tireless energy on stage and off. She sings tenor and high-baritone harmonies. She and Muller are co-founders of Southern Rail, and have worked on 10 recording projects, eight of which are Southern Rail’s.
RICHARD STILLMAN, banjo and harmony vocals
Stillman has played bluegrass banjo for more 30 years. He has founded or been involved with several bands, including the Jersey Travelers, WayStation, and Adam Dewey and Crazy Creek. Numerous studio recording credits with other New England folk artists. New Jersey banjo champion in 1983 and the 2002 and 2003 New England banjo champion. He is a six-time winner of the annual banjo contest held at Lowell, where he has presented a bluegrass banjo workshop annually since 1996. A regular on the faculty of Banjo Camp North, has taught for Boston Bluegrass Union, and has been an adjunct faculty member at Phillips Academy in Andover. He is now on the music faculty at Tufts University.
JOHN TIBERT, mandolin and harmony vocals
Hailing from Northboro, Tibert started playing guitar at 14. But once he heard Dave Grisman on “Old and in the Way”, his life was never the same. He’s a prolific songwriter and also has taught mandolin for over a decade. Tibert’s mandolin playing is fluid, lyrical and from the heart, and his bass vocals are a powerful addition to the group’s signature quartet harmonies.