Of Old Hands I once heard Yonder’s own Jeff Austin claim that it’s “something unlike anything we’ve ever done.” By now, most of these songs are well integrated into the foursome’s diverse repertoire. Still, this release holds some surprises for fans of the band’s traditional bluegrass tinkerings. The album is the third of three studio releases offered by the Nederland, Colorado quartet, and the first which features their friend Benny Galloway on guitar & vocals. In fact, each and every song on this record was written by Galloway. But don’t let that fool you; this is record is as full of Yonder’s music as it is Galloway’s.
In the liner notes, Galloway credits the Yonder boys thus: “To hear these songs played by these fine musicians… Wow…”. In those words one can hear the sense that these are not entirely the songs as Galloway wrote them. Much in the same way that they add their own something to their cover of Dylan’s “Spanish Harlem Blues,” George Harrison’s “Northern Song,” or Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,”. YMSB adds their own distinctive touch to these songs by Galloway.
Still, Galloway’s influence is undeniable. On this record the boys of YMSB introduce a new sound to their repertoire. Amidst the characteristic good ol’ timey bluegrass tracks such as “Pride of Alabama,” “Deep Pockets,” “Train Bound for Glory Land,” and “Alone and Blue,” we hear more traditional country tunes such as “Sleepy Cowboy,” “And Going Away,” and “Big Lights”. The track “Behold, the Rock of Ages” introduces Yonder fans to a haunting gospel sound reminiscent of an acoustic Marty Stewart. What’s more, these once-pigeonholed bluegrass pickers move through these various (although closely-tied) musical genres easily and gracefully, while preserving a sound that is undeniably their own.
Galloway appears on this album on several tracks, laying down solid guitars and haggard, resonant vocals. YMSB is also joined on several tracks by the mad fiddlin’ fool Darol Anger, and Sally Van Meter, who works her glorious magic on the slide guitar.
All this praise aside, it must be said that Galloway’s songwriting style sometimes leans toward the clichéd and the heard-before. “Train Bound (For Gloryland)” is an amalgamation of dozens of old bluegrass tunes about the hereafter, while “Everytime” is an uninspiring, repetitive chant for the “country.” Lyrically, nearly all of these songs pick and borrow a thing or two from older classic country and bluegrass tunes, which is a sad thing to hear after Yonder’s previous two releases (which brought such a fresh lyrical perspective to traditional bluegrass picking).
That being said, better bluegrass/country bands than Yonder Mountain String Band and Benny Galloway have built careers from reaching back to the work of previous generations; it is part of the genre. Plus, with songs “The Wind Thru the Willows,” “Deep Pockets,” and “Pride of Alabama,” Benny Galloway was able to find that delicate balance of new and old which allows for the transformation of words on paper and harmonies in the wind to pure lyrical gold.
Bottom line: With Old Hands, the YMSB boys brought their top-notch musicianship, Galloway brought his damn good songs, and Sally Van Meter brought her slide guitar and her ability to tap it all, blend it up, and bottle it like some kind of snake-oil. Now we can just go down to the record store, buy it up, and pour it through our speakers whenever we please. Not only is this record is good enough to steal from a friend, it’s good enough to lie about it when confronted. Hell, it’s probably even worth paying for. I give it four stars out of five.