Stillhouse Junkies, the International Bluegrass Music Association’s 2021 Momentum Band of the Year, have done it again. “Small Towns,” their latest release, is a feat of musical storytelling. While clearly grounded in bluegrass, it acknowledges cross-genre influences and sets the tone for what is sure to be a long and fruitful career for this trio.
This full-length album begins with the jaunty “Moonrise Over Ridgway,” a modern spin on classic cowboy songs, setting a storytelling tone that pervades the album regardless of the dominant genre influence of any single track.
I particularly appreciate the placement of “Never Going Back Again,” a beautiful cover of the classic Fleetwood Mac song, set almost exactly in the middle of the album. This is just the sort of thing I love to see from young rising stars. It underscores the importance of wide and varying influences in the genre, something that is often lost or swept under the rug in mainstream recordings.
Written by the band’s fiddle player Alissa Wolf, track eight (“El Camino”) features critically acclaimed bluegrass singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Becky Buller on second fiddle. It’s an upbeat song “about living spontaneously in the moment,” and Buller’s fiddle solo gives this bouncy track some fire.
Each track has its own unique story and strengths, but the standout track for me is “On The House.” I have a weakness for jazzy bluegrass, but it’s often hard to nail despite the fact that the two styles share certain themes. While the rest of this record proves the band’s skill at marrying Americana and mainstream bluegrass to create a sound all their own, this track demonstrates a commitment to punctuating that sound with increasingly unexpected forms. To be honest, this one makes me want to grab a partner and learn how to swing dance. I love being able to say that about a bluegrass record.
What I love most about this album musically is that no one contributor’s talents outshine another’s or “make” the record for me. Instead, they fit together like puzzle pieces on each of the twelve tracks, underscoring the importance of the theme that is everyone’s voice telling the story of America.
I’m a sucker for a good CD package. Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t play an instrument and maybe it’s the fact that by trade I’m a music marketer; whatever the reason, I see this as a crucial part of a cohesive album. “Small Towns” is an upbeat but earthy record, communicating the stories and sounds of America, and this package emphasizes that. Featuring artwork and layout by Tim Kapustka, dark green, charcoal gray, and deep blue form the backdrop for fun floral accents and framing. The eye is immediately drawn to the disc itself, which stands out from the rest of the package with its bright yet dusky salmon pink. The cover artwork – based on photography by Renee Cornue – features a tastefully cartoon-like depiction of the trio which clearly communicates the lively and adventurous nature of this recording.
“Small Towns” by the Stillhouse Junkies features the talents of Alissa Wolf on fiddle, harmony vocals, and lead vocal (track eight), Cody Tinnin on upright bass, harmony vocals, and lead vocal (tracks one, five, ten, and twelve), and Fred Kosak on mandolin (track two), octave mandolin (tracks seven and eight), guitar, harmony vocals, and lead vocal (tracks two, three, four, six, seven, nine, and eleven). These three play and sing together like they have been doing it their entire lives. Each of them brings a serious drive but playful approach to their craft, an approach that makes for the best in bluegrass music. Their impeccable collaboration is accented by guest contributor Becky Buller and polished by production, engineering, and mixing by Stephen Mougin and mastering by David Glasser.
I’ve had the pleasure of being familiar with Dark Shadow Recording over the past several years. Of their impressive catalog of records, this one just might be my favorite. As the accessible, contextualizing liner notes make clear, it is the perfect soundtrack to a journey across small-town America, paying sincere and creative tribute to the places and people who have inspired the band along the way – and using that tribute to pave a way forward and set a promising precedent and wonderful example. I will be keeping a close eye on the Stillhouse Junkies, and suggest y’all do the same.
Lindsey Terrell is a folklorist, writer, and social media consultant based in Durham, North Carolina. Her current focus is on the intersection of old time and Americana music. Email Lindsey here.