BAND TO WATCH COLUMN
IRON HORSE: MUSCLE SHOALS, ALABAMA
BY DAVE HIGGS
“Heavy metal and bluegrass go together like angry steelworkers and precious little cucumber finger sandwiches with the crusts cut off,” Westword wryly observed in reviewing Iron Horse’s ambitious high lonesome tribute to Metallica, Fade to Bluegrass. “This is Metallica we’re talking about, an ass-whuppin’ band that’s more apt to make you want to bomb Fallujah than contemplate a mountain stream or a sweetly rendered G-run,” the review continues, noting the seemingly irreconcilable incongruity between the two genres of music. It’s a dichotomy that’s not lost on the band.
“We felt the same way,” guitarist Vance Henry agrees, still wondering how a band steeped in the tradition of Flatt & Scruggs and a group that cut its teeth backing such staunch traditionalists as Jake Landers and Rual Yarbrough could end up covering tunes like “Unforgiven,” “Nothing Else Matters” and “Fade to Black.”
Indeed, one of the most surreal sights in bluegrass is watching Tony Robertson, Iron Horse’s mild-mannered and affable mandolinist, a man who has been playing bluegrass mandolin for 25 years (eleven of them with the legendary Jake Landers), furrow his brow, sprout imaginary devil horns and nihilistically growl, “Give me fuel, give me fire, give me that which I desire” as the band rips into a spirited rendition of “Fuel.”
“When CMH [Records] came to us and asked us to do the Metallica project, we were stunned,” bassist Ricky Rogers incredulously recalls. “We really didn’t know a thing about Metallica, but the more [we listened to them] the more we said, ‘this is do-able.’ Every form of music has a core and if you can get down to it, then you have the basis for another kind of music. So we just took [the music] out of their frame of mind and put it into a more bluegrass friendly state of mind.”
“We kept the instrumental and vocal signature phrases,” banjoist Anthony Richardson explains, “and built our arrangements around that. “We could hear mentally how drums would fit into our arrangement, but we didn’t want to take away from what we were trying to accomplish by using instruments that aren’t typically associated with bluegrass.”
Fade to Bluegrass heralded a significant departure from CMH’s celebrated “Pickin’ On” series of all-instrumental tribute albums. For one of the first times, a band was asked to provide a vocal interpretation as well. “We’ve had the opportunity to do things that have never been done before and it’s been fun,” Vance comments. “We weren’t trying to copy Metallica. We just do what we do and use their songs because we respect what they did as a band. We’ve had an overwhelmingly good response from both bluegrass and Metallica fans.”
Those positive responses (and impressive sales) prompted CMH to sign the band to a five record deal which will include projects paying homage to Led Zeppelin, Modest Mouse, Ozzy Osbourne (Black & Bluegrass, released in March, 2004) as well as their own immediately recognizable music. “We had to get over slitting our wrists when we finished [the Metallica tribute],” Vance humorously observes. “Ozzy’s music was a stretch, but his tunes weren’t as complicated as Metallica’s.”
Ironically, it was the band’s first CD, a self-produced (and traditionally flavored) effort, Riding Out the Storm, on their own B Sharp label, which first attracted the label’s attention. That album contained three tunes from the Jake Landers song bag, a cover of the Marshall Tucker Band’s rock anthem, “Fire On the Mountain,” some hard driving staples such as Flatt & Scruggs’ “Little Girl of Mine In Tennessee” and six originals composed by Tony and Ricky, including one of the band’s signature tracks, an island-flavored instrumental, “Mando Mambo.”
Iron Horse was formed in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in 2000. Tony, Ricky and Vance had played together for many years in the Jake Landers band—Anthony joined the group in December, 2002. The group’s own musical persona is solidly within the traditional camp, which is not surprising given the fact each of the band members has been playing that form of music for over twenty five years. The quartet writes a majority of its material, but fearlessly still has no qualms putting their patented Bill Monroe begatted spin on compositions from outside the genre.
“We’ve [been at bluegrass festivals] and have learned if we don’t tell the crowd that it’s a Metallica song, they love it,” Tony relates with a grin. But if we go on stage and say ‘this is a Metallica song,’ then they look at it a little differently.”
“Yeah, all of sudden, it’s dinner time!,” Anthony laughs