Life’s Railway To Heaven
Mike Stevens Music MSM4005
Review by Art Menius for Bluegrass Unlimited January 1995
Down By The River Side This Train Sweet Hour of Prayer Swing Low, Sweet Chariot When They Ring Those Golden Bells I Saw The Light When The Saints Go Marching How Great Thou Art Life’s Railway To Heaven He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands Why Me, Lord I’ll Fly Away
From southwestern Ontario near Detroit, harmonica blower Mike Stevens has gained a good deal of name recognition among American bluegrass fans through his frequent performances at festivals and concerts and on The Grand Ole Opry with such stellar outfits as Jim & Jesse. The mouth harp has a long and distinguished role in southern vernacular music and came to bluegrass and modern country long ago through Charlie McCoy. Stevens, however, has made the most recent, serious, and sustained effort to bring the handy instrument to the bluegrass mainstream. It’s hard to deny that he makes a strong case.
The problem for the harmonica in bluegrass proves two fold. Socially, it has become identified almost entirely with the blues since World War II. Musically, the mouth harp appears too often as the poor man’s fiddle, filling that role in the absence of a fiddler. On Life’s Railway To Heaven, an all-gospel, all-instrumental set, Stevens devises clearly separate roles for his blowing and the fiddling by Bobby Hicks, the former Blue Grass Boy and long-time fiddler for Ricky Skaggs.
Stevens’ harmonica basically takes on the vocal role. His instrument “sings” a verse and chorus, then his superstar pickers take their breaks. What a pick of the bunch they prove, led by Hicks, Jesse McReynolds on mandolin, banjoist Raymond McLain, his brother Michael McLain playing guitar, and the inimitable Roy Huskey, Jr. providing the bass work. Stevens clearly demonstrates that both he and his harmonica belong among such rarefied company. The obvious love and respect he feels for this venerable, familiar sacred material shows in playing more pleasingly restrained and delightfully tasteful that the hyperbolic virtuosity of his previous CD, Blowin’ Up A Storm.
If anything, given the talents of Stevens and crew, come across the slightest bit too restrained this time around, not sustaining the fabulously jam session spontaneity of the best bluegrass instrumentals on every cut. Having said that I must confess consistently to find bluegrass gospel instrumentals sounding like “music minus one” albums–I keep waiting for the vocals. That’s just personal prejudice. Mike Steven’s Life’s Railway to Heaven proves pleasant listening throughout and an excellent example of adapting the harmonica successfully to the bluegrass ensemble.