Say the word "bluegrass" and the image in the minds of many will be Southern farmland and Appalachian hollows, but the fact is that there are hotbeds of bluegrass music all over the U.S., including outposts far north of the Mason-Dixon line. From their beginnings in the late '70s, and despite what might be presumed by their name, Southern Rail were a mainstay of the Boston bluegrass scene and were respected as one of the most consistently solid, traditionally oriented bands on the national scene.
Formed in 1979, the continuing presence in the band, both artistically and in business dealings, was the husband and wife duo of singer/guitarist Jim Muller and bassist Sharon Horovitch. Both were products of immigrant families. Horovitch's grandparents came from Eastern Europe to Canada around the turn of the century, while Muller, born and raised in Richmond, VA, came from Italian stock on his mother's side and German on his father's. Muller's family was musical, and he gained his first exposure to bluegrass by listening to the Old Dominion Barndance show on Richmond's WRVA. He began playing guitar at 15 and got serious about bluegrass when he bought his first banjo around 1974.
While an undergraduate at McGill University in Montreal, where she was born and raised, Horovitch became involved in folk music, especially the French fiddle music of her native Quebec. She met Muller in 1975, when both were graduate students in Boston at MIT -- Horovitch eventually earned a doctorate in molecular biology, while Muller's was in geophysics. Early in their relationship, Muller took Horovitch to see a show that featured the legendary Joe Val & the New England Bluegrass Boys as well as to her first bluegrass festival, and she was hooked -- charmed especially by the on-stage personas of Val and his band.
In 1977 Horovitch and Muller married. In 1978 Muller bought her a standup bass, began to write songs, and Southern Rail debuted as a band in 1979. As is often the case with bluegrass bands, the personnel changed frequently over the years, but Muller and Horovitch held the band together and logged thousands of miles playing music on a "semifull-time" basis in between their careers in science and other pursuits. In all its incarnations, the hallmark of Southern Rail's sound was the ability of Muller and Horovitch to hire first-class musicians to back up Muller's singing and songwriting, although the band also achieved a reputation for excellence in performing traditional material, especially gospel. Most importantly, though, Muller and Horovitch always emphasized the on-stage, entertainment aspect of their music, and this is something that a great many bands in all areas of music often overlook or discount. A Southern Rail show was always fun. In 1994 the band signed with the respected Florida-based bluegrass specialty label Pinecastle Records, and their first release on that label, Glory Train, was nominated as Gospel Album of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association. In 1996, two members of the band left to pursue other projects, and Horovitch and Muller considered calling it a good run and folding the band. But, feeling they were having too much fun and had too much music left to play, they recruited Muller's brother Paul to play banjo and brought South Carolinian Bob Sachs in on mandolin. The result was a band that not only maintained its instrumental prowess, but with the combined singing of the Muller brothers, may have achieved its strongest vocal character to date. Another Pinecastle release, Wasting My Time, followed in 1998, but as they headed toward their 20th anniversary with six albums under their belts, Southern Rail were making pretty good use of their time. ~ John Lupton