The Night Travelers – Campfire (Mystic Wood)
The Night Travelers are a folk-bluegrass duo from Georgia, comprising renowned 5-string banjo player James McKinney with Niki Portmann on upright bass. McKinney earned his musical spurs winning the South U.S. Banjo Championship at age 15, and in 1982 he came first in the National Banjo Championship. He went on to play with Bill Monroe, John Hartford and others. In the ‘80s he settled in Nashville, recorded with country music greats like Porter Wagoner and Johnny Cash, and toured as part of The Vassar Clements Band.
Portmann was born in Switzerland, moved to the USA as a child, and came to her chosen instrument fairly late. With McKinney’s encouragement and tutelage she’s become an accomplished player, and together they make some great American roots music.
McKinney sings as well as plays, and although his voice is a little rough at the edges, he brings plenty of homely backporch warmth to his performance. We get to know the pair pretty well over eleven tracks, and although there’s nothing fancy about the production, we do get to be impressed by both McKinney’s instrumental prowess and Portmann’s way with a rock solid rhythm.
They’ve previously been compared to Nickel Creek and Alison Krauss & Union Station, but beyond the fact that they’re exploring and playing in much the same genre, it’s an unfair comparison. The Night Travelers are recording with limited means and there’s nothing slick about them whatsoever. As a result, they sound like a genuine voice; a throwback to simpler times, and I’m all for them.