Abraham Lincoln's nickname was 'The Railsplitter', a moniker coined during his campaign to become 16th President of the United States of America in 1860. The aim was to capitalise on Lincoln's humble beginnings, which he spent living and working on his parents' farm in Kentucky. Young Abraham would also be hired out to help neighbouring farmers with physical tasks like log-splitting and fence-building. Railsplitting is the process of splitting large logs down into smaller 'rails' suitable for use as fencing posts.
Eastern Kentucky lies within the Appalachian mountain range, forming part of the Appalachian cultural region, generally considered the home of bluegrass music. The Railsplitters are a bluegrass band based in Boulder, Colorado (not part of Appalachia), although only fiddler Christine King is Colorado born and bred. Ironically, she is the newest member. The rest of the band had descended on the Rocky Mountain state from as far afield as Mississippi in the South and New York in the East, before forming as a four-piece back in 2012. Two albums later, and The Railsplitters are on an April tour of the UK, culminating at the Shetland Folk Festival at the end of the month. Tuesday brings them to Norwich Arts Centre for the first time, and they are to perform a double set to a buzzing seated audience.
True bluegrass music, whilst originating in the Appalachian region, probably grew out of a mixture of Irish, Scottish, English and Welsh folk music brought across by migrant settlers.It later absorbed native American and, eventually, even jazz elements. Traditional bluegrass acts will keep to the original lineup of acoustic instruments - fiddle, five-string banjo, guitar, mandolin and upright bass (The Railsplitters' lineup) to which two, three or four part vocal harmonies are added. During performances individual instruments will often perform improvised solo 'breakdowns' whilst the remainder of the band provides accompaniment.
So those are the rules. The first thing we learn about The Railsplitters, though, is that they are not afraid to push boundaries, or even break the rules. Sometimes, as we are told during the introduction to Planted On The Ground, they manage to upset the purists, attracting the wrath of what lead vocalist Lauren Stovell refers to as the 'bluegrass police'. However, we are safe within the sanctuary of the ancient church setting of Norwich Arts Centre tonight, so they can break whatever rules they like. It will be fine by us.
In fact, they start with an old Ray Price song, Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes, which owes almost as much to honky-tonk as it does bluegrass. They also throw in a few more covers, including Bill Henson's Lonesome Feeling and a guilty pleasure in the form of Buddy Holly's Oh Boy! (during which they don novelty specs purchased earlier in the day from the fancy dress shop in St Benedicts Street).
But it is their own material that impresses tonight. All four original members share songwriting duties, either individually or collaboratively, and it is the input of Leslie Ziegler (bass), Pete Sharpe (mandolin), guitarist Lauren and the wonderfully-named banjo-player Dusty Rider (who is also responsible for many of the instrumental arrangements and vocal harmony layouts) that puts the contemporary into The Railsplitters' bluegrass, and even sees them spinning off into completely new territories.
The remainder of the setlist is culled from their two album releases - highlights including Boarding Pass and My World from the eponymous debut, and Tilt-a-Whirl and The Estuary from the new album The Faster It Goes. Lovely crisp vocals from Lauren (combining elements of Emmylou, Alson Krauss and even a bit of Dolly Parton), beautiful harmonies throughout, and wonderful musicianship. Even a non-bluegrass purist (I'm more of an indie-folk man, myself) is going to enjoy the sounds these guys make.
Introductions, and between-song banter, are shared out evenly, allowing us to learn that 'Tilt-a-Whirl' is what we would call the 'Waltzer' at a funfair (hence the image of a swing ride on the latest album); British 'candy bars' taste so much better than their American counterparts that merch sales proceeds are likely to be converted into confectionery before flying back to the States; and that there is no need for the word 'Estuary' in Colorado.
Judging by how the CD's are flying off the table tonight at Norwich Arts Centre, there will be plenty of room for a secret stash of chocolate bars to be smuggled back to Boulder at the end of the month.