Trails & Rails’ new CD reminds me of what happens at the end a long trail ride. After driving cattle to the rail head and stockyard to market, you begin to reap the rewards for your hard work and days wondering among the canyons, mesas, and western ghost trails. This album also marks a new crossroad for the quartet, a one that spans many concert miles and band member changes and transitions. Aptly titled Western Tales, it corrals 20 songs that only begin to capture the full depth of the band’s song catalog and ongoing musical adventures.
Creatively engineered by Pro Music Studio owner Peter Harrison to capture the band’s true sound and character, the first thing that stands out on the CD is the wonderful sound of the acoustic instruments. The group’s vocal harmonies and sharp lead vocals are clear. They capture the western flavor of the songs, six of which were written by former band member and bass player Bruce Huntington, who has a special songwriter’s knack, which ties together western stories by conveying the atmosphere and characters through his songs. Ken Wilcox steps out vocally on some of the songs and expresses the character of the tales with hints of humor and pathos that underscore the songs’ meaning without any false airs or mimicry. As always, Walt Richards and Paula Strong are at the top of their vocal game, and it’s a pleasure to hear what they’ve produced after years of singing together in a variety of musical styles. This CD’s mix of new and old material has always been a part of the Trails & Rails tradition. The introduction, a narration by Ken Graydon on the song “Hills of Aberdeen,” shows us why he is our local western musical icon, a fine folk singer and songwriter in his own right, and a real cowboy poet who knows his way around horses. The tracks consist of both traditional tunes and new songs by western/cowboy songwriters Dave Stamey, Les Buffham, Walt Richards, Ian Tyson, Bruce Huntington, Keeler Stuart, and David Wilke. We also get to hear the stand up bass of Peter Varhola, a recently added band member, whose calm but strong sense of rhythm shows up throughout his playing. From Phee Sherline’s original painting on the cover to the caboose photo of the band by photographer Dennis Andersen, this CD will really touch you. Trails & Rails also bring a variety of instruments into the western mix. In addition to guitars, you’ll also hear banjo, autoharp, and Phee Sherline on the hammered dulcimer. These instruments enhance and broaden the musical cowboy canvas really well and show the band’s willingness to stay traditional while still expanding the genre’s boundaries and widening the music’s sound imprint. The last song, like the rolling of the credits after an old, silent cowboy film, is played out via the ghostly tones of the instrumental song “Sunflower Dance,” with its rinky-dink sound. The melody is a duet of Walt Richard’s minstrel/cake walk-picked banjo and Phee Sherline’s haunting hammered dulcimer. By the end of the album, you know all is well and Trails & Rails’ ride will continue for many years.