It’s a joy to discover a regional band that has the potential to breakout nationally. I’d say that’s true of the Chattanooga, Tennessee-based Hamilton County Ramblers. Their self-titled debut album is pretty much a total package. Confident, engaging lead vocals and resonate harmony singing combine with picking that’s solid, inventive, and soaring. Everyone plays at pretty much the same level—superb. The tone, note selection, feeling, it’s all here.
John Boulware (fiddle and baritone vocals) comes from a long line of fiddlers stretching to a great great grandfather. He’s soloed with the Murfreesboro Philharmonic Symphony and been a winner at the Tennessee State Fiddle Championships. Roy Curry (guitar) has also won contests at Winfield/Walnut Valley and MerleFest. James Kee (mandolin and lead vocals) had a banjo picking grandfather and sang in town and church choirs as a young man. Josh Hixson (bass and tenor vocals) learned guitar, mandolin, and banjo before specializing in the bass, playing with nationally-known groups such as the Crowe Brothers. Jim Pankey (banjo) mastered clawhammer as well as three-finger picking and is a Tennessee state banjo champion.
The group’s debut also stands out for its material. The opening track, “Cora’s Gone,” best known from the classic Flatt & Scruggs version, puts the Hamilton Ramblers firmly in bluegrass territory. On the contemporary side, “Copperline,” which has received numerous folk and country covers, gets a fresh and warm treatment here. And it’s amazing to hear “Old Chattanooga” done as a fiddle-banjo showcase, then hear the band shift seamlessly into Western Swing with “I Hear Ya Talkin’” (Scott Coney joins on archtop guitar). There’s lots more driving, classic bluegrass (notably a rousing rendition of “She Left Me Standing On The Mountain,” popularized by Jim & Jesse) until the CD ends with a wistful yet powerful a cappella quartet arrangement of “Hard Times (Come Again No More).”
The crisp, bright co-production by the Hamilton County Ramblers and Brent Truitt (of SteelDrivers fame who engineered and mixed) deserves mention. And so does the clever cover art, designed by Boulware and Pankey to look like a belovedly-used old LP. And who knows? You might even play this CD enough to put some real handling wear on its package. (Hamilton County Ramblers, P.O. Box 15725, Chattanooga, TN 37415, www.hamiltoncountyramblers.com.)RDS