A large and enthusiastic crowd gathered at the Historical Museum in Springvale on April 2 to hear a group called Southern Rail in concert. They are a group of four performers specializing in the performance of bluegrass music. Like many others who may not know much (if anything) about them (whatever), I nevertheless can state that I know what I like, and with regard to Southern Rail, I very much liked what I heard.

The group consists of Jim Muller, guitar and lead vocalist; Sharon Horrovitch, acoustic bass and tenor in the vocal quartet; Richard Stillman, banjo and baritone; and John Tibert, mandolin and vocal bass. At times they performed a cappella, in two-part pairings (Muller and Horrovitch); instrumentally as a quartet, and with deft and exquisitely executed solo work on mandolin and banjo. During these solo stints, they were supported by driving rhythms by Muller (acoustic guitar) and plucked notes by Horrovitch (string bass).

There was a variety of music played that conveyed the many sides to bluegrass. Harmonies included melodies that were modal (Dorian), in minor and major scales. One marveled at the fact that they performed for almost two hours with no sheet music and that they remembered the lyrics to all those songs. There was no printed program, with Miller announcing the names of the songs. Almost all the songs were in duple time (two beats to a measure), but the rare song in three-fourth’s time (“I’m a Hobo,” for example) was outstanding, partially because it differed in character as well as style from most of the others.

None of the vocalists had what could be described as a cultured voice. However, the musicality and sincerity of their singing in close and accurate four-part harmony were of a character that was well-suited to the genre of music being performed. Songs that were performed prior to what host Harland Eastman referred to as halftime included “My Carolina Home,” “I’ve Been Gone for Way Too Long,” “Who is Gonna Stand by Me,” “Cold Frosty Mornin’,” “What I Wanted was a Lover but the Lord in His Wisdom Sent Me You,” “It’s a Long Hard Road” and “Common Prayer (Let Me Win the Lottery Today),” which was the last song before intermission.

Between the songs, there was good natured banter and an occasional joke. Trying out a new guitar, the bluegrass performer would strum a G major chord, the blues player an E major triad and the folk singer in C Major. One story I recall took place during the French Revolution. A doctor, lawyer and engineer were going to be guillotined. Asked which way he wanted to face, the doctor said “Up,” and the blade stopped an inch before his neck. The same thing happened to the lawyer. The engineer looking up said, “Stop, I think I found the problem.”

The songs performed after intermission did not vary from those performed in the first part. There were many songs in which the audience clapped in time to the music, and they warmly applauded the efforts of the group.

Muller and Horrovitch co-founded the group and worked on 10 recording projects, eight of which are Southern Rail’s. The quartet has graced Bluegrass Unlimited’s top 30 singles chart for 32 months, and have been number one on many radio stations nationally. Southern Rail was selected by the New England Foundation of the Arts to be included in their touring roster. A new recording (their 12th), a DVD called “Southern Rail Saturday Night,” will soon be released. They can be reached by email at: [email protected]

The group has many concerts scheduled in July, and a return concert at the museum is a real possibility. I know that I would welcome it. Bluegrass, as this genre of music is known, is not my usual fare. However, by golly, and bless their “pea-pickin’ hearts,” I confess that if I ever needed a change of pace, this would be it.

— Morton Gold is a composer/conductor, retired educator and an arts reviewer for the Journal Tribune.

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