Thomas Porter may be the youngest member of the Copper River Band, but he’s also the current front man, guitarist, lead vocalist and primary songwriter for the Arizona-based group together since late-2004 when Bob Denoncourt, John Thompson, Jim Govern, and Charlie Edsall formed the band. When John and Charlie moved on to other endeavors, the lineup supplemented Bob (bass, vocals) and Jim (mandolin) with three other excellent musicians and vocalists — guitarist Thomas Porter (since 2005), fiddler Doug Bartlett and banjo-player Dick Brown (since 2010).
Emphasizing all-original material, “Trolley Days” kicks off with a nostalgic tribute to the popular Phoenix Street Railway System that operated from 1887 to 1948 and had the motto “Ride a mile and smile the while.” Porter’s historically accurate song mentions the nickel fare, horse-drawn cars that were converted to electric power in 1893, and the 1948 car barn fire that led to the trolleys’ replacement with buses.
While eleven of the songs on this album were written solely by Thomas Porter, “No More Room” and “Steady As She Goes” were collaborations between Porter and Bartlett, a fine multi-instrumentalist who has won two IBMA awards and is a two-time Grammy award nominee. The album presents nice variety from a sad ¾-time “Poor Sister Cry” to a barn-burning closer for the workingman, “Tool and Die.” Porter shows he can write a swingy country number “Belt Buckle Polishing Song” or keep the message straightforward and direct with “Next Time’s A Charm.” Somewhat in novelty vein, Porter shows his respect for bandmate Dick Brown with “That’s a Fine Fine Banjo Mr. Brown.” Formerly with such bands as Traditional Bluegrass, Pacific Crest, Lost Highway, and Sawmill Road, Dick Brown is given plenty of room to strut his stuff in the song with some favorite banjo licks, harmonics and use of his Scruggs tuners. Besides being consummate instrumentalists, the members of Copper River also have a pleasant and engaging vocal blend. “Echoes of Your Name” has a purity that conveys plenty of emotional electricity. “Waves Crash Down on Me” is a sturdy story song with both imagery and immediacy.
Thomas Porter & the Copper River Band have shown a canny ability to carefully cultivate contemporary bluegrass music with Arizona flavorings. This band has a formidable sound, built around Porter’s lead vocals and seasoned professionals presenting original material. With the help of many sponsors, Porter has also released a single in 2011 called “Simple Box of Pine” with some top names in bluegrass music. He’s clearly a precocious talent to be reckoned with, and his collaboration in Copper River with four veterans who have been around the block will give us many more wild, thrilling musical rides like “Trolley Days.” (Joe Ross)