Momentum gained by bluegrass band The Po' Ramblin' Boys through the critical success of Grammy award-nominated album Toil, Tears & Trouble (Rounder Records, 2019) keeps rolling on Never Slow Down (out March 25), the group's debut for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and its first flight with fiddler Laura Orshaw, the East Tennessee-formed band's long-distance collaborator since 2017, as an official member.
"We were finally able to figure out the travel and scheduling and make it work where I can commute down from Boston," Orshaw told Wide Open Country. "So yeah, we're five-piece, full-on bluegrass. We get together on the tours and the gigs, and it still works."
Orshaw joins four like-minded friends spread across Tennessee and Kentucky: C.J. Lewandowski (mandolin), Jasper Lorentzen (bass), Jereme Brown (banjo) and Josh Rinkel (guitar).
"We are passionate about traditional bluegrass music, and all of us have studied bluegrass," she said. "We also love a lot of other styles of music, so we're influenced by all of each others' regional bluegrass influences and then by other musical styles. But also we like traveling, we like meeting people and we like for our music to be relatable to today's audiences, so we try to be open-minded with our music. We want to bring other people to bluegrass, too. We want it to be accessible and fun to people who didn't grow up with it or aren't already fans."
"We want to see how far we can take traditional bluegrass," added Rinkel, a prolific songwriter who's nicknamed Jug. "Like, what if the Stanley Brothers were still still making records today, or what if Bill Monroe was still making records today? Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs were innovators, and I don't think they'd sound [the same] today. I think they would've kept on evolving the sound, as well. We're just trying to see maybe where it would've went, if it would've went."
Beyond the benefits of always having a world-class fiddler onstage and in studio, Orshaw's now-constant presence as a vocalist opens things up creatively for the band's retro-meets-modern mission.
"I love it because we get to add another harmony part," Rinkel said. "Everybody in the band sings except for our bass player, so we always had a trio thing going. Now we can do a high-stacked trio with her getting the high baritone instead of just having a baritone, lead and tenor. Now we can do a lead, tenor and high baritone. That's just another way for us to pay our respects to the forefathers of bluegrass because the Stanley Brothers are the people that really introduced the high-stacked trio to bluegrass. I think a few other people may have done it before them, but they're the ones that popularized it."
Rinkel and his bandmates' appreciation of Ralph and Carter Stanley--and their drive to add their own spin to hardcore bluegrass--shines on a cover of "Little Glass of Wine."
Orshaw takes center stage as a vocalist on additional covers that represent the span of both her vocal talent and the band's influences: "Where Grass Don't Grow," a 1970 single by George Jones (Po' Ramblin' Boys have covered The Possum on every secular album); "Old Time Angels," the title track of a 2013 Jim Lauderdale album; and, best of all, "Ramblin' Woman," written in the 1970's by Hazel Dickens and recorded with her musical partner, Alice Gerrard.
"We get to do four-piece harmony stuff, too, with bass, baritone, lead and tenor," Rinkel explained. "We done one on the record like that ['Mason's Lament'] and everybody's singing the actual parts where before, somebody had to go back and overdub something. And she sings a lot of country songs, honky-tonk style songs. That's always fun to do. We like the honky-tonk songs. We get a little rowdy."
Smithsonian Folkways makes sense as the label home of a five-piece that glances back at American music traditions while being firmly footed in the here-and-now.
"I follow their stuff just because I'm really interested in archival music and all the collections that they've put together," Orshaw said. "And then I think it's a good fit with us because we're all so interested in older styles of music and honoring them but also keeping it alive and making it relevant to today. I think Smithsonian does a great job with that, and they do it with all sorts of different styles of music."
The release of Never Slow Down and the permanent addition of Orshaw begins a new chapter for a group that first cut its teeth at Old Smoky Moonshine, the Gatlinburg, Tenn. distillery that now sponsors one of the busiest bluegrass troupes on the touring and festival circuit.
"They have bluegrass music every day out of the year but Christmas from noon until 10 p.m. We got our start over there," Rinkel said. "We were playing five to seven days a week, five to 10 hours a day. We were just doing that to make a living. We could make a living and not have to travel. But then it snowballed into this, and we're gone all the time now."
Never Slow Down Tracklist:
1. "Missing Her Has Never Slowed Me Down"
2. "Where Grass Don't Grow"
4. "The Blues Are Close at Hand"
5. "When Are You Gonna Tell Me?"
6. "Take My Ashes to the River"
7. "Little Glass of Wine"
8. "Ramblin' Woman"
9. "Woke Up With Tears in My Eyes"
10. "Mason's Lament"
11. "Old Time Angels"
READ MORE: Jenee Fleenor's Country Music Peers Praise the Award-Winning Fiddler: 'She's The G.O.A.T. These Days'
Enjoy all things country?
Don't miss a story! Sign up for daily stories delivered to your inbox.