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Music Review: Cody Shuler & Pine Mountain Railroad – Pickin’, Praisin’ & Singin’: Hymns from the Mountain

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Accomplished bluegrass ensemble Pine Mountain Railroad’s latest album is devoted to songs celebrating and declaring the gospel. Their five-man band (with supplements) of multi-talented, accomplished musicians covers a great deal of territory in this release. Roaming from fiery calls to repentance to aching songs of longing for heaven the crisp instrumentals and tight harmonies make for a captivating listening experience.

With a core of traditional, public domain hymns, and gospel classics PMR mixes in a scant handful of contemporary works. The combined lyrics create a picture of a simple, salt of the earth faith. No fancy theology here, just plain old-fashioned praise sent up to Jesus, the joys awaiting believers in heaven and the age-old story of salvation.

While 80% of the songs on this disc are found in the public domain, the music is never stale. Each title receives a fresh interpretation, PMR claiming each one as their own through new arrangements and personal tweaks. I wasn’t sure about some of the more drastic changes found in old stand by’s. “Rock of Ages” was so unlike traditional arrangements that I disliked it the first few times through; now I’m catching myself singing the new harmonies of this re-worked hymnal standard throughout the day. Any listener who opens their ears to Pine Mountain Railroad's sweet strains is sure to be won over in like manner.

However not all of the old favourites have been given such a facelift, many remain quite recognizable. “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be” and “The Old Rugged Cross” are two that pair familiarity with the fresh coat of paint PMR applies.

Shuler’s original opening track made respectable appearances on bluegrass charts, “My Eyes Shall Be On Canaan’s Land” is a toe-tapping piece embodying the best of the style – twangy vocals, quick banjo picking with sweet fiddle solo’s. If this tune isn’t enough to get you dancing, nothing is. Perhaps the strongest track instrumentally, “My Eyes” doesn’t fail to draw upon the group’s main strength – achingly beautiful and bang-on 4 part harmony.

Throughout the disk Cody Shuler and Jerry Cole alternate lead vocals. When not at the helm the men provide a surprisingly sweet, clear tenor and a rich, full-bodied tenor respectively. Matt Flake’s baritone provides an anchor with surprising depth for his apparent youth and Bill McBee’s bass is brought in to seal the deal when the most driving rhythms require his counterpoint.

Playing up the ability to produce this glorious melding of voices several tracks are a capella including “I Bowed on My Knees and Cried Holy”, “Run On”, and “So High”. Some songs include accompaniment by a single guitar or guitar and mandolin back up. This is in no way related to any weakness in musicianship – the band works together like a tightly oiled machine with amazing timing and cohesion – it’s just that the amazing vocal work is best lightly supported in many cases. In fact, one of the entirely a capella tracks “Run On” is one of the strongest on the disc a rhythmic, powerful tune with swing leanings that warns of the futility of running from God’s impending judgment. A close runner up is “So High” another a capella track wherein the four vocalists trade off the lead, interspersed with an infectious chorus.

Pine Mountain Railroad will impress newcomers and devotees alike with their brilliant execution combined with the mix of style variations and topics explored on Pickin’, Praisin’ & Singin’. I danced on my seat and on my feet, cried with longing for heaven and looked to my savior with praise and devotion. I wouldn’t dare ask for more from a gospel album.

Track Listing

  1. “My Eyes Shall Be On Canaan’s Land”
  2.  “I Bowed Down My Knees and Cried Holy”
  3.  “Blood Brought My Freedom”
  4.  "When We All Get to Heaven”
  5.  “Where the Soul Never Dies”
  6.  “The Gospel Ship”
  7.  “Run On”
  8.  “Let’s Meet by the River”
  9.  “This World Is Not My Home”
  10.  “How Beautiful Heaven Must Be”
  11.  “So High”
  12.  “The Old Rugged Cross”
  13.  “Over in the Gloryland”
  14.  “What Would You Give in Exchange”
  15.  “Rock of Ages”
  16. “I’m Getting Ready to Leave This World”
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