march 2011

Montana’s Bitteroot Mountains (Photo:

At Large On The Land

John Reischman & The Jaybirds go above and beyond the call of duty

By David McGee

John Reischman & The Jaybirds
Corvus Records

Now celebrating a decade together, the quintet of musicians comprising John Reischman & The Jaybirds demonstrate why familiarity breeds transcendence on this, their fifth album. Bluegrass, and bluegrass-tinged folk and country are the group’s calling cards, and though they certainly sparkle in romping through a joyous, fiddle-fired (courtesy Greg Spatz) celebration of the traditional “Shady Grove” to lead off the festivities and later in getting deep and foreboding on Bill Monroe’s breakup lament, “The First Whippoorwill” (with guitarist Jim Nunally contributing a pinched, nasally lead vocal that evokes Mr. Bill about as well as anyone has in recent memory, and both fiddler Spatz and mandolin master Reischman shining on to-the-point solos), the original tunes most recommend Vintage & Unique—always a central strength of this outfit, the various band members who contributed new songs went above and beyond the call of duty this time around.

John Reischman & The Jaybirds: (from left) Greg Spatz, John Reischman, Trisha Gagnon, Jim Nunally, Nick Hornbuckle:their souls and spirits, through voices and instruments, acknowledge respect for and subservience to the natural world.

Bassist/vocalist Trisha Gagnon, outstanding in all respects throughout the album, has a couple of inspired originals to consider, including the frantic “Hurry Up and Harvest,” a fleet-fingered exercise for Reischman (mandolin), Spatz (fiddle) and Nick Hornbuckle (banjo) that is otherwise a happy, upbeat but cautionary tale advising a devoted fisherman to first bring in the crops before the possums do it for him, while leaving the fish to their habitats until the more important task is completed. Gagnon’s warm, bright voice effectively articulates the urgency of the moment as her fellow musicians evoke the frantic pace of activity her words describe. Singing in a clear, pure, mountain soul of a voice, Gagnon enhances the drama of her own “Cold Mountain,” a somber, reflective story of the pain, toil and toll a worker endures while laying the Canadian Railway, a sad chapter of history inspired by Gagnon’s reading about the Chinese laborers, lonely and alone, who constructed much of the rail line in question, leaving their families behind but harboring elusive dreams of doing well enough to bring their loved ones over from the mainland one day—despair Gagnon voices in the ache in her vocal, and which is further underscored with finality by Hornbuckle’s lonesome sounding banjo and Spatz’s weeping fiddle lines. Gagnon’s plaintive voice also leads a pulsating gospel quartet-style arrangement of Hazel Dickens’s bluegrass spiritual, “Gabriel’s Call,” a triumphant 2:39 celebration on the album’s penultimate track.

John Reischman & The Jaybirds, ‘Blackberry Bramble,’ from the band’s third album, Road West. Live at the Kootenai River Bluegrass Festival, Troy, Montana, July 18, 2009

Among many wonderful moments for Reischman himself, his cowboy ballad, “Cypress Hills” (a co-write with Susan Crowe), tender, reflective and guarded, recounts the telling details of a young man leaving home, setting out alone on the prairie to find what the world has to offer but with a heavy heart fully aware of the privations he’s about to endure—beautiful, evocative solos by guitarist Nunally and mandolinist Reischman buttress the powerful but understated vocal Gagnon delivers in heightening the unsettling duality of the protagonist’s plight. Nunally has a fine song of his own here in “Consider Me Gone,” a driving bluegrass kissoff number addressed to a merciless heartbreaker, complete with a catchy three-part harmony chorus (affectingly executed by Nunally, Gagnon and Reischman) and a spirited fiddle solo by Spatz that fairly sings “good riddance.” Spatz and Hornbuckle both contribute songs with epic historical backdrops: the former’s four-minutes-plus instrumental, “Lancaster Sound,” inspired by his great-great uncle Sir John Franklin’s tragic Arctic expedition of 1845, employs his dancing, Celtic-tinged fiddling along with measured but cheerful mandolin and banjo soloing to conjure an atmosphere of anticipation and optimism, tempered only by, in the final bars, the slow, abrupt descent into the void; Nunally’s hard charging guitar, Spatz’s heated bowing, Reischman’s nimble sprint along the mandolin strings and Hornbuckle’s eager banjo key the fireworks of the latter’s “The Black Road,” a hearty toe-tapper informed by his reading of Vancouver Island’s coal mining history. With all this music so deeply enmeshed in real history and expressing a respect for the land harboring the pioneers, explorers and other dreamers populating the new and traditional tales on Vintage & Unique, it’s entirely fitting for Reischman to close the long player with his reflective instrumental, “Bitterroot Waltz.” No one need sing aloud; this tender meditation beseeches the musicians’ souls and spirits to pour forth from their fingers and through their strings in acknowledging their respect for and subservience to the natural world, specifically the mighty fortress that inspired Reischman’s haunting tune, Montana’s majestic Bitteroot Mountains. Their voice is our voice, and it rings true.

John Reischman & The Jaybirds’ Vintage & Unique is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024