In 2002, American bluegrass band, Reeltime Travellers released their second and final album, Livin’ Reeltime Thinkin’ Old-Time. Whatever the reason for their disbandment, they at leastleft the world with this solid bluegrass album, filled with exceptional musical performances and some intensely strong songwriting from guitarist and vocalist, Martha Scanlan. Outside of the instrumentals, her singing and songwriting are the driving force of the group. There is however, a sharp difference in quality between the pieces that Scanlan helms and the ones led by the other members of the band.
For all intents and purposes, there are three kinds of songs on this record, instrumentals, Scanlan led pieces, and the non-Scanlan ones. The instrumentals are mainly showcases for the wonderful interplay between Heidi Andrade on the fiddle and Ray Andrade on the banjo. While Scanlan’s guitar and Thomas Sneed’s mandolin are both present, the bulk of the music is performed between the Andrade’s. The first of these instrumentals is also the album’s opening track, “Paddy Won’t You Drink Some Cider?” At a bit under two and a half minutes, it serves as a perfect introduction to the musical strength of Reeltime Travelers. The fiddle just saws away at the melody with passion and vigor while the banjo takes prominence in establishing the rhythm.
Similar in their construction are the pieces, “Flippin’ Jenny” and “Sally Goodin.” The former of these is a bit slower than the others, making for a slight change of pace, but “Sally…” goes hand in hand with “Paddy…” in terms of their up-tempo fiddle playing. Also offering subtle variations to the instrumental formula are “Kiss Me Quick, Papa’s Coming” and “Elzic’s Farwell.” The latter of these has passages where the tone of the fiddle drops much lower, adding a unique part to the melody. The other has several starts and stops, which may not sound like a huge departure from the norm, but it’s enough to give the song its own identity.
Moving into the second kind of songs, the non-Scanlan pieces are the weakest ones here. For example, “Maybe the Last Time” has that staggeringly good instrumentation to it, but the lyrical delivery lacks punch and runs far too long. At around five minutes, there’s nothing in the lyric that keeps the listener enticed; the piece would’ve functioned better as one of the two minute instrumentals, all things considered. “Down the River” suffers even more than the track prior due to its uninspired sound; good banjo picking can’t make up for a ho-hum lyric and lackluster arrangement. At the very least, “Ain’t Gwine Drink a No More” is a well-played song, emphasizing vocal harmonies and the toe-tapping pace of many of the other tracks.
And then there are the songs by Martha Scanlan. The first of these is “Bear Creek.” As we’re introduced to her voice, we hear Scanlan sounding a bit like Emmylou Harris with a little less of a range, but the same spirited delivery. It’s not until “Halleluiah” where the full force of Scanlan’s songwriting hits. “Halleluiah” has the same kind of structure and feel that classic songs from The Band had, such as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The building up to the simple chorus of “Halleluiah Halleluiah,” is akin to the storing up and then release of frustration, tension; whatever it is that the singer is feeling.
“Little Bird of Heaven” is short, sweet, and to the point. The metaphorical bird that Scanlan sings about could represent many things, love included. “Well love they tell me is a fragile thing/It’s hard to fly on broken wings/I lost my ticket to the Promised Land/Little bird of heaven right here in my hand.” The light arrangement puts the emphasis on Scanlan’s lyric and voice, and for good reason; it’s a beautiful performance.
Finally, Scanlan ends the album with her song, “Higher Rock.” Just like her prior songs, shesings it in magnificent fashion, provides great imagery in her lyric, and is backed up by a stellar arrangement. The fiddle playing on this track is infectious in the brief repeated melody that it churns out. Besides being one of the stronger songs on the album, it’s also a fantastic way to close things out.
Reeltime Travelers rely on the strength of their musicianship and songwriting of Martha Scanlan to make their album, Livin’ Reeltime Thinkin’ Old-Time an engaging affair. While it’s not a wholly consistent record, it’s still strong enough to listen to nearly start to finish without too much contention. If Scanlan had been behind all of the non-instrumentals, it would be a much stronger album, but this is still a solid slice of American bluegrass that remains as interesting today as it did when it first released.