march 2011

In Command, Moving Forward

By David McGee


NewFound Road

A bit past the halfway mark of this live set recorded this past December at the Down Home club in Johnson City, TN, Tim Shelton turns over band introduction duties to Josh Miller, who in turn introduces Shelton as “one of the greatest singers of all time, Mr. Tim Shelton!” The band then eases into a graceful, loping rendition of Tom T. Hall’s classic “I Got To Memphis,” a bittersweet tale of lost love that Shelton proceeds to invest with subdued ache in a perfect vocal evocation of a man barely containing his emotions as he relates the tale of being waylaid by his gal in the Bluff City. It’s not the only time on this fine outing when Shelton gets so deep into a familiar song that he makes you hear it with new ears, or finds untapped veins of feeling in more recent tunes that he or Miller penned (or he and Miller, in the case of easygoing, tear-stained ballad to a distant lover, “If You’ll Pretend,” which has the added benefit of emotional texture supplied by Shelton’s own tender acoustic guitar solo and a sensitive, complementary mandolin solo courtesy Johnson City’s own Joe Booher). When the song is done, though, you’ll realize, if you haven’t already, that Miller’s high opinion of his bandmate’s vocal preeminence is well founded.

As the principal voice of one of bluegrass’s outstanding bands, Shelton is quite the star of Live At The Down Home, but NewFound Road didn’t attain its current lofty perch solely on the strength of Shelton’s smart vocals. In Joe Booher’s brother Jamey the band boasts a stellar bass player; in Joe, a formidable mandolin picker; in Josh Miller a true triple-threat all-star on banjo, guitar and vocals (make that quadruple threat, thanks to Miller’s well-honed songwriting). On the night in question here, the band was truly loaded for bear with the addition of Mountain Heart’s extraordinary fiddler, Jim Van Cleve, sitting in as well—the long, crying lines he contributes to the rustic soundscape supporting the understated but searing self-recriminations Miller confesses to in Jackson Browne’s “These Days” help NewFound Road do nothing less than remake this great song, never losing its blues essence but bringing it back to country in a big way. With all concerned operating at peak efficiency, the players gave the audience a night to remember.

As the songs mentioned thus far indicate, NewFound Road explores wide and varied sources, both internal and external, for material. Sonya Isaacs and Josh Ragsdale of The Isaacs penned the hard charging set opener, “Try To Be.” An urgent, even slightly desperate testimony devoted to self-improvement, the song is goosed along by Shelton’s forceful vocal, as Joe Booher’s sprightly mandolin run, Van Cleve’s sizzling fiddle solos and Miller’s onrushing banjo lines enhance the singer’s stated resolve to honor his determination “to be the best me I can be.” From the Earl Scruggs catalogue the band tears into “Ruben,” a driving, mountain-redolent instrumental in which all the pickers get a turn in the spotlight and acquit themselves more than admirably, especially Joe Booher, who crafts an exquisite, atmospheric mandolin solo that rises from a gentle whisper to a fevered howl. The set winds up with three cover versions, gems all: Dave Loggins’s “Please Come to Boston” reconfigured as a gently loping bluegrass ballad; one of Glen Campbell’s great lost hits, “Houston,” from 1974 (written by David Paich, who went on to fame as a member of Toto), a moody breakup rumination featuring a wounded vocal by Shelton and smooth, affecting harmonizing in the choruses; and, as a boffo set closer, Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine,” seven minutes and forty-four seconds of rabble rousing that begins with almost four minutes of a powerhouse Joe Booher mandolin solo flitting around and darting through the melody line like a crazed hummingbird before it settles into a groove and Shelton enters singing lowdown and scarred. But whereas Withers’s legendary version emphasizes the singer’s utter loneliness—even wallows in it, gloriously—NewFound Road’s bluesy version rails against the injustice of the man alone, demonstrating once again this band’s impressive knack for putting its stamp on outside material. To this mix Josh Miller contributes a memorable new entry into the murder ballad sweepstakes with “Blackadders Cove,” all tense energy and simmering anger spurred by a woman who consorts with her man's brother and pays the ultimate price; and Miller teams with Union Station’s Barry Bales to pen “We Ain’t Going Down Without a Fight,” a dramatic story-song about bootleggers under siege by the law and vowing a bloody end to their standoff, as Joe Booher (mandolin) and Jim Van Cleve (fiddle) underscore the doom-laden atmosphere with terse solos. Like greatest hits albums, live albums are often seen as holding patterns, buying a band in transition or on hiatus some time to regroup ahead of another studio project. But Live At The Down Home sounds like the work of a group ready to flex its collective muscles in making a statement about its own vitality. No holding pattern in evidence here; only a gifted quartet fully in command of its art and ready to move forward.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024