One of the pleasures of following the bluegrass scene is seeing the progression of a talented band as they climb up the ladder of experience, to hear them gain confidence and professionalism, and to hear their music mature. We’ve been fortunate in recent years to see the development of some great new bands coming out of the local ranks. This new wave of talent is going to be the foundation of bluegrass music for the next generation. Joining that elite group now is Union Springs.
Union Springs hails from around Cincinnati, Ohio, one of those Midwestern hotbeds of bluegrass, so they’re certainly steeped in the tradition. In addition, mandolin player/singer Dwight McCall brings a store of bluegrass knowledge learned from his father, bluegrass pioneer Jim McCall. Union Springs’ previous releases (Ten Past Midnight and the all-gospel Help Me, Lord) were fine efforts, but with the release of Next Train Headed South, this talented quartet shows that they’re ready to take their place among the best.
The overall feel of their third release will remind you of the first couple of recordings by the Bluegrass Cardinals. All the necessary elements are here - driving rhythm, tasteful instrumental work, great dynamics and, standing out above everything else, exceptional harmonies. The little touches and attention to detail shine on Next Train Headed South. The arrangements are thoughtful and interesting. The instrumental solos, particularly Tim Strong’s guitar breaks, are clever, clean and melodic.
Over half of the tunes were written by members of the band, and the craftsmanship is high. They’ve added some fresh, well-written material that could just as well have been around for years. Dwight McCall handles most of the lead vocals, and these guys have the high lead trios down cold - Randy Pollard’s Lost In Love will melt your soul. The title track, written by McCall, is a powerhouse with driving rhythm and clever arrangement. Bass player Jon Weisberger (unknown no more) penned the beautiful and sentimental My Heart’s Bouquet and In My Dreams.
Union Springs also effectively digs back into older material. Pride comes from Janie Fricke, and it works just fine as a straight-up bluegrass trio. My personal favorite is Wendy Smith’s Carolyn The Teenage Queen, a tale of hopeless love and death which echoes the Cardinal’s version of The Girl At The Crossroads Bar, both in sound and attitude. God’s Own Singer and The Leaves That Are Green are familiar, but are played with the kind of freshness that makes them sound like the first time you heard them. The two songs written by Jim McCall - A Rambler And A Rover and A Hard Road To Travel - deserve special note. They're pretty obscure and don't deserve that fate.
The recording quality is exceptional. The band plays with taste and restraint, making use of clever fills and riffs, not clutter. It takes a lot of maturity to take advantage of the space in a melody instead of loading up with a lot of excess notes. Guest fiddle player Tim Smith rounds out the sound and fits in like he’s been working with the band all along.
The future of bluegrass music is in good hands. Bands like Front Range, Cornerstone and now, Union Springs, show that they know where the music comes from and they’re putting as much into it as any of their predecessors. This is an exceptional recording from a top notch band. Highly recommended.