Greetings from Asheville, where good music is always on the turntable. How about a little bluegrass for a change? Flatt and Scruggs were arguably bluegrass’ most important act of the 1960’s, as their success in crossing over into the mainstream country market, as well as the folk scene, was simply unparalleled. Their performances, both live and on record, were amazing, and they could perform Carter Family classics or the latest Dylan, with equal ease, and convince you that the music was written for them. So, it’s no surprise that today’s Classic Album Review is a collection of perfection. Do you want to know how to really play stringed instruments? Listen to this, or any of their albums, and you will hear how.
Hear the Whistles Blow is a 1967 release featuring songs about railroads and steamboats. Released in July, it peaked at thirty-seven on Billboard’s country album charts. Nine of the eleven tracks were recorded during sessions early in 1967. “Starlight on The Rails” are holdovers from an early 1965 session, while the title track was recorded way back in 1962. Don Law and Frank Jones produced all the tracks.
The album starts out with a great up-tempo song, “Southbound”. Written by the equally legendary Doc Watson, and his son, Merle, it’s the story of a man who spends his life riding the rails and is completely happy with his lifestyle.
For me, the only weak song on the disc is “East Bound Train”. The song tells of a young girl, trying to ride a train without a ticket, because she’s trying to get to the prison to ask for a pardon for her incarcerated father, who is dying. There are some who will love this song, but for me, I’m just not into morbidity in my music, for the most part.
We switch to the river for the next song. “Roust-A-Bout” is similar to “Southbound”, both in tempo, as well as theme; man spends his life on a riverboat.
They cut loose on “Bringin’ In the Georgia Mail”. This song has a genuine excitement, to it. Listening, you can almost see the big drivers of the locomotive and feel the breeze as it passes.
I can’t say, for sure, but “Hear the Whistle Blow A Hundred Miles” may be a variation of the Bobby Bare hit “500 Miles from Home”. They have almost the same melody and similar lyrics; in fact, towards the end Lester Flatt even sings the line “five hundred miles away from home”. It is an outstanding cut, though.
Side one wraps up with the story of a young man who seeks revenge for his father’s murder, and he decides to take the same steamboat to New Orleans that his father rode to his fate. Again, I’m normally not one who cares for morbidity in his music, but “I’m Gonna Ride That Steamboat” is an outstanding number, so I’ll make an exception.
One of my all-time favorite Flatt & Scruggs recordings opens side 2; the Mel Tillis written “Atlantic Coastal Line”. It’s a great song that’s never been a hit, but has been recorded numerous times, over the years, but THE version is this one. I will note, too, that one of my first model railroad locomotives was lettered for the Atlantic Coast Line.
And, of course, an album in which spotlights railroading is simply not complete without at least one song telling of a tragic accident. “Train No. 1262” is that song for this album. Give a listen, and the story is very similar to that of the classic “Wreck of The Old 97”, right down to the moral warning at the end.
There’s only one instrumental on this album, “Orange Blossom Special”. A classic song in bluegrass and country music, but frankly, one that’s almost overdone. That being said, it’s hard to beat this version. The group completely cuts loose, and the picking is unbelievable, especially the fiddle playing.
When “Starlight on The Rails” began, I almost immediately found myself swaying along to the very infectious tempo. It’s a classic bluegrass tale of wandering, loneliness, lost and broken dreams, and wasted days. If you are familiar with any of those, this song will touch, and perhaps even haunt you.
“Going Across the Sea” is a great way to wrap up the album. A simple song, but like the rest of the album, performed flawlessly by Flatt and Scruggs.
Inexplicably, this album is not, to my knowledge, available on CD or MP3. Used vinyl copies, though, seem to be plentiful. Checking Amazon and eBay, most copies I saw were between $5 and $20. Goldmine values near-mint copies at $25 for both stereo and mono issues.
As always, the Foggy Mountain Boys are playing in impeccable form, and Lester Flatt’s smooth, twangy tones are at their best. Flatt and Scruggs Can’t You Hear The Whistles Blow is a classic bluegrass/country/folk mix, that anyone who likes the classics of any of the three genres, will greatly appreciate.
Your thoughts, memories, and comments are always appreciated.
Saving vinyl, one record at a time.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mike the Country Musicologist is a lifelong music and radio fanatic, model railroader, lover of vintage agriculture, and big sports fan, including the Colts, Reds, Hurricanes, Pacers, Purdue & Butler Universities. He has collected records since childhood, focusing on classic country and top 40 oldies music. He convinced Vincennes University to give him an Associate’s Degree in broadcasting. He’s worked for several stations in Indiana and North Carolina. Be sure to follow him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.