John Lowell Band | The Skalkaho Road

The gang lightly trips through the many faces of bluegrass, led by Lowell

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The John Lowell Band's debut recording, The Skalkaho Road.
The John Lowell Band’s debut recording, The Skalkaho Road.

Livingston troubadour and guitar player John Lowell has another ensemble to add to his growing collection of bluegrass bands. This time around, he reunites with banjo player Julie Elkins, who performed with him years ago in Kane’s River; they’re joined by fellow Two Bit Franks picker Tom Murphy, playing mandolin and octave mandolin; and German musician Thomas Kaerner, who adds bass and resonator guitar.

The band has a European connection: Lowell has often performed in Europe as a member of Growling Old Men with mandolinist Ben Winship, and was invited to play a big festival in Germany. But when Winship couldn’t go, he rounded up other musicians, convinced the promoter, and they were off. The band has only ever played in Europe, but after people hear this recording, I doubt that will still be true.

Both Lowell and Elkins sing lead and harmony vocals, and Murphy adds harmony singing on the predominantly Lowell-written pieces. The gang lightly trips through the many faces of bluegrass, including instrumentals, ballads, and mid-tempo storysongs, with Lowell’s fine baritone voice leading the way.

The title song’s tempo reflects the slow lope of horses and wagons, as Lowell unfolds the lyrics. Jason Thomas provides some glossy fiddle licks. Murphy’s cantering instrumental, “Buckeye Creek,” finds him and Elkins playing slick and syncopated licks; Lowell jumps in with seamless fretwork, too.

Elkins sings “Small Town Train,” which she co-wrote with Missoula mandolinist Tom Kelley many moons ago; it’s about a man who readies to leave for war, with the premonition that he may not return.

Lowell’s “I Don’t Know Why She Left” features his dazzling guitar style and oodles of bluesy Murphy mandolin sequences. Elkins cranks out old-time banjo riffs and sings lead as the fellas answer on the chorus in the traditional number, “Gospel Plough.”

“Let ‘er Go” has squiggly double-stop fiddle riffs from co-writer Jeremy Garrett (with Lowell); and another Two Bit Frank, Kevin Fabozzi, adds twin mandolin on Murphy’s pretty instrumental, “Hollyhock.” All in all, another finely crafted effort from terrific musicians.


– Mariss McTucker