Listening to their latest album, Livin’ Reeltime, Thinkin’ Oldtime, it’s hard to believe that the Reeltime Travelers have been playing together for only three years. But already, this up and coming bluegrass quintet is making big splashes.
The Reeltime Travelers were chosen as a 2002 showcase band by the International Bluegrass Music Association, but they have not rested on their laurels. So far this year, the Travelers have earned their name by playing Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom Festival, the Grand Targhee Bluegrass Festival, the High Sierra Music Festival and the Northern Rockies Folk Festival. If you missed these opportunities, however, not to fear: The Reeltime Travelers take Missoula by storm on Wednesday, July 31 at the Blue Heron. If that doesn’t quench your oldtime thirst, you can follow the scent of the Reeltime trail to the Symes Hotel in Hot Springs the following night.
There’s a definite comfort in the familiar, and the Reeltime Travelers are aware of that, delivering traditional oldtime favorites like “Down the River” and “Elzics Farewell” like pristine musical gifts carefully preserved in bubble-wrap. Through the efforts of this band, songs that are ages old are brought out into the0 light for a new audience and it seems there isn’t a scratch on them. Yet the Travelers are not content to merely “pass the oldtime torch.” That may be a big part of their musical aim, but the Reeltime Travelers also add to the tradition they pass along with beautiful original songs, true to the oldtime tradition, but fused with more modern lyrics and mountain harmonies. All this adds up to a quintet that can please both old and young, bluegrass junkies and newcomers alike.
Like any bluegrass band worth its weight in hay bales, the Reeltime Travelers are a true collaboration. Fiddler Heidi Andrade and her husband, banjoist Roy Andrade play off one another delightfully with the kind of intuitive timing best perfected when you know someone as well as your own spouse. Thomas Sneed shucks it up on mandolin with a subtle but persistent beat that often gives the impression of percussion, until you remember that the Travelers have no drummer. Brandon Story holds down the bass lines all the while, but the shimmering soul of the Reeltime Travelers, if there is a standout, is singer/songwriter and guitarist Martha Scanlan.
Scanlan is a talented songwriter with a voice both sweet and raw, depending upon the song. Scanlan’s talent hasn’t gone unnoticed, either. At the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at Merlefest, judges awarded Scanlan’s “Little Bird of Heaven” first place in the bluegrass category and “Hallelujah” second place in the country category.
As good as Livin’ Reeltime, Thinkin’ Oldtime is—and much credit is due to producer Bob Carlin, best known for his banjo work with John Hartford—this music is undoubtedly meant to be performed and enjoyed live. The shows at the Blue Heron and the Symes Hotel promise to be high-energy, get-your-ass-on-the-floor-and-dance kind of evenings. Of course, the show would best be played in a rustic barn on the outskirts of town, but you can’t win ‘em all. Instead, be satisfied with this glorious mountain music, the kind of music that can make O’ Brother, Where Art Thou, which was a good movie, seem like a great movie. One interesting sidenote: The Reeltime Travelers play with singer/songwriter Ed Snodderly when time permits. Snodderly was a Soggy Bottom Boy in the film O’ Brother.
Aside from being accomplished performers, the Reeltime Travelers have a true dedication to the music that they love. They don’t just play this music—they do fieldwork, interviewing old musicians, rediscovering old songs that otherwise might have been lost to our culture. In addition, the Travelers host children’s workshops to pass along the traditions they have learned and cherished. For this band, it’s clearly not just about “making it,” although that’s not going to be a problem for the Travelers. It’s about a true love for old-fashioned bluegrass and country music, and that enthusiasm is infectious. If you want to catch that beautiful fever, your chance is drawing near.