Keeping Time With Adam Steffey

22 March 2012

The Boxcars are a bunch of bluegrass veterans who joined forces a couple of years ago. They have just released their second album, entitled All In. It’s available on the band’s website, among other places. This gives us an excuse to celebrate the work of The Boxcars in general and their ace mandolin player Adam Steffey in particular.

Way back in the old days, when there was still this thing called winter, Steffey held a mandolin workshop at The 2011 Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. Some of his observations might surprise you. Have a look, and while you’re at it, enjoy some tasty samples of The Boxcars’ show on the main stage at Joe Val:

Lots of pickers share Steffey’s passion for working out with a metronome. Even so, I suspect many would be taken aback to hear him say, “If I’m playing with a good guitar player and a good bass player, and I’m able to work rhythmically with what’s going on, I would never take another solo.” After all, as much as anything, Steffey is known for his fluid and tasteful solos. Those of us who marvel at the way he tosses off those lightning fast scale runs or laces intricate triplets into a melody have a hard time getting our head around the notion that he would just as soon stand in the back and chop away. We’re less concerned about “Keeping Time With Adam Steffey” than “Keeping Up With Adam Steffey.”

I hear a lot of Steffey’s influence in the playing of many of the most gifted younger mandolin players out there today. I would put him in an élite corps of masters who have reinterpreted the fundamentals of bluegrass mandolin as laid out by Bill Monroe, players like David Grisman, Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, Mike Marshall, Chris Thile and Ronnie McCoury.

The key to Steffey’s distinctive sound is twofold. On the one hand— the right hand, in fact— Steffey gets a very sweet tone from his instrument with very little discernible attack on the string. On the other hand— the left hand— Steffey doesn’t really use his pinky for fingering. Instead of stretching out his hand to make up for this, he slides around the fret board, creating a sound that is at once clean and slinky. As they say, “Often imitated, never duplicated.”

Yer Pal— Curly

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