Jeff Austin & Chris Castino: Songs from the Tin Shed

Yonder Mountain's Jeff Austin and The Big Wu's Chris Castino first met four years ago when a very green Yonder Mountain String Band appeared for the first time at the annual Big Wu Family Reunion in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Not only was it the beginning of an extraordinary musical friendship but it was also the first exposure to the bluegrass sounds of YMSB for many Midwest music fans. During the Wu's set on Sunday night, Jeff brought his mandolin to the stage for what would turn out to be the first of many collaborations between the two bands.

Ever since that first meeting and collaboration, it has been rumored that Chris and Jeff would record an album together. It all came to fruition in 2003. Sandwiched around Chris' health scare and heart surgery in June, their debut album Songs from the Tin Shed was recorded over two sessions in March and August in Lyons, Colorado. Many bluegrass luminaries and other stars contributed their voices and instruments to the record, including Nick Forster (bassist and MC for Hot Rize), Darol Anger, Noam Pikelny, Sally Van Meter, and all three of Jeff's Yonder bandmates, Ben Kaufman, Adam Aijala, and Dave Johnston. And of course the ever-present Benny (Burl) Galloway, whose songs are featured on Yonder's 2003 Old Hands CD, is also given a songwriting credit and played bass during this past March's tour in support of Tin Shed.

The album opens with "No Place Like a Road," a Castino original featuring Nick on acoustic bass and Yonder's Dave Johnston on banjo. An example of the fine songwriting of Chris Castino, the song is about being homesick and missing loved ones while on the road.

Can only wait so long
Since we're getting to the truth
I don't want to spend my youth
With a phone and a photograph
So bring yourself on home
And remind me with a kiss
Why we put up with this
Let's make love and laugh...

Next comes Austin's "A Different Day," which Jeff appropriately describes as a simple tune about love lost and worlds falling apart. This is probably the most "Yonder-sounding" song on the album with a bit of a bluegrass feel. "My Baby's Gone" is a beautiful, lilting Louvin Brothers ballad featuring Yonder's Ben Kaufmann on bass and vocals, contributing a traditional baritone line that allows for three-part harmony in the folk style.

Next up is "Back of My Mind," a Benny Galloway song that Jeff says has one of the best choruses he's ever heard. Chris and Jeff split the lyrics after they both discovered how much they liked it, and it also features Noam on banjo and Darol on fiddle. "Last Day Waltz" is another song about missing loved ones while on the road. An Austin original, it's a mellow, relaxing waltz with super harmonies and even a little yodel flourish on the end of the verses. "Steep Grade, Sharp Curves" has already gotten a live workout over the past several months as part of Yonder Mountain's repertoire. It's a fun story song about a mythical hitchhiker and the havoc this beauty leaves in her wake. Sally Van Meter contributes a haunting resophonic guitar to this track and it is a great example of the excellent songwriting of Jeff Austin.

Three days later and the time doesn't matter
Tell me where's my watch and my cash
Forgive me please for how I might have behaved
For I can't seem to remember what happened last
She was like a dream, one of Heaven's schemes
Cecilia D from Abilene
Last thing I remember she was smiling like the devil
And laughing like all hell as she rode out of sight...

Castino's ballad "Latent Love" is about "heartbreak and the promise of recovery." One wonders if he wrote this one during his own recovery from a different kind of heartbreak (heart surgery). This song has a waltz feel as well and as Jeff mentioned often during their tour together, "We're trying to bring the waltz back into American society." "Flatiron Suite" comes next. During that memorable Memorial Day Weekend back in 2000, after Jeff had played with the Big Wu for a few songs, he remained on stage and held up the lyrics to Flatiron Suite for Chris to read while The Big Wu played it for the first time. Legend has it that Chris had written the song earlier that day in the back of the Wu's van. A slightly altered version appears here and as Chris says in the album's liner notes, "This song was written for this record, although at the time I didn't see it. It was meant for Jeff's mando style and his harmony voice." It's been a staple for the Big Wu since then but seems to have taken on new life on this album.

Austin's "Sunday Afternoon" is a sad song about loneliness and hopelessness given a sad, somber feel by Nick's lap steel, while "Paul & Silas" is a traditional song arranged by Chris, Jeff, and Nick. Nick adds the clawhammer banjo to this one and it's the only hoedown style, high energy yee-haw tune on the album. Finally, the album concludes with a song by Riders in the Sky, "Lonely Yukon Stars" and features Chris doing his best Minnesota yodel. Where else can you hear what Chris accurately describes as "a lullaby waltz with a cowboy yodel and some beautiful, northern imagery" than on this record?

Songs from the Tin Shed is an authentic acoustic record with a deep reverence for that which has come before--it feels like it was recorded 30 years ago. It's a simple, no frills example of great American singing and songwriting, all packaged together with some fine musicianship.

Daniel Gutof
JamBase | Chicago
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[Published on: 5/6/04]

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