Towards the outer edge of bluegrass, in that area pioneered by the Seldom Scene and J.D. Crowe, where powerful drive meets outsider songwriting, where Tony Rice sings Gordon Lightfoot – that’s where you’ll find Geoff Union. His music is a steam-powered bluegrass train driven at full throttle, wheels coming off the inside rails, going around the bend and slamming down hard again in the straightaway.
In September 2012, Union released an eight-song recording of original numbers, Cold As Steel. Over 70 bluegrass DJs have given the CD airplay on their programs. Backed by a tight, five-piece bluegrass band and set for release in September of 2012, the album’s rhythmically charged style stands apart. While the flatpicking draws strongly from tradition (Watson, White, Rice, Blake, Sutton), the songwriting is a breed apart, not for the faint of heart. Listeners are taken on an unexpected journey, venturing into dark territory away from the safety of standard themes of feelings, love and loss.
There is a certain allegiance to obscurity in the storytelling, whether it be recounting tales of rebellious moonshinery (“Spirit of ‘94”, “Lewis Redmond”) or the story of Union’s own grandfather, who faked the flooding loss of a massive barrel corrugator machine in the 1940s so he could steal it, head south and be his own man (“Cold as Steel”). The album also features two dynamic instrumental numbers — one with a fiddle tune feel (“Fannie at the Front Door”) and another in a minor swing, reminiscent of early Dawg (“Half Past Zero”).
Union has been playing, writing, and singing in bluegrass and acoustic bands in Austin, Texas for more than 15 years. He has performed at RockyGrass, MerleFest and a host of festivals and concert stages across the country with The Two High String Band, and continues to perform with longtime THSB band mate and mandolinist Billy Bright. He appears weekly at regular gigs in Austin and San Marcos, has several regional festivals and showcase gigs on the calendar for the spring of 2013, and has been invited to perform at the 3rd annual John Hartford Memorial Festival this summer at Bean Blossom.
Austin may be considered far away from the nerve center of bluegrass music, but perhaps it is that distance that has opened the door to this unique perception, one that has a little bit of Texas in a cup full of Tennessee. Geoff Union’s years and miles have made the flavor in that cup rich and strong – a flavor that will last well beyond this mile, and this year. (http://.geoffunion.com)
Geoff Union - Guitar & Vocals
Steven Crow - Upright Bass
Dave Wilmoth - mandolin
Chojo Jacques - Fiddle
2012 - "Cold as Steel" (streaming and available for purchase on geoffunion.com)
2010 - "Big Sky Tonight" (country, available at cdbaby.com/geoffunion)
w/ Two High String Band:
2010 - "Hot Texas Bluegrass Burrito"
2006 - "Moonshine Boogie"
2003 - "Insofarasmuch"
Bluegrass Today Review 10.25.12
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For a musician living in Texas, Geoff Union certainly spans the country in his newest release, Cold ...For a musician living in Texas, Geoff Union certainly spans the country in his newest release, Cold as Steel. This Austin-based guitarist and vocalist sings about North Carolina, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Colorado and yes, Texas, on his first solo project, out now from Shining Castle Music. Union has created an album full of original material that is sure to catch the ear of fans of modern bluegrass and acoustic music.
The eight tracks on this album are energetic, capturing the listener’s attention from the very first song. While the lyrics are sometimes vague (perhaps intentionally), the songs include vivid images. Union (and his cowriter on two tunes, Jim Harris) tell stories but don’t give away every detail. The fast-paced opener, Devil’s Card, engages listeners with the story of a man with a gun who’s up to no good. Water in the Well offers a take on the idea that the grass is always greener on the other side, in which the singer is setting off from Texas for new opportunities elsewhere. Even though he doesn’t know exactly what might be waiting for him, he still knows that “whichever way you’re headed, there’s water in the well.
One of the album’s standout songs is the title track. Union wrote Cold as Steel about his grandfather, who worked for Bethlehem Steel and whose quick mind allowed him to use a flood to help him steal machinery and start a new life in North Carolina. Even though Union’s grandfather’s story probably isn’t well-known outside of his family, it’s just unusual enough to be compelling.
Two other songs also cover somewhat historical topics, also with an illegal twist. Spirit of ’94 is a traditional-sounding tune about the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 in western Pennsylvania, when farmers created an uprising against a new whiskey tax. Lewis Redmond has a Celtic flair and tells the story of a legendary moonshiner from western North Carolina. These two songs are both interesting, but may be somewhat confusing to listeners who are not familiar with the stories behind them.
Union has also composed two instrumentals for the album: the jazzy, swingy, David Grisman-influenced Half Past Zero and the much more traditional Fannie at the Front Door. These two songs, along with the rest of the music on the album, are performed well by obviously experienced musicians. Union’s Tony Rice-inspired guitar picking is joined by Billy Bright (mandolin and mandola), Steven Crow (bass), Dom Fisher (bass), Mark Maniscalco (banjo), and Ricky Turpin (fiddle). Union’s wife Christina also contributes harmony vocals throughout the album.
Bluegrass Unlimited Review October 2012
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It’s a safe bet that in all of bluegrass music there has not been a song that mentions steel corruga...It’s a safe bet that in all of bluegrass music there has not been a song that mentions steel corrugators or 26-guage panels. Until now, that is, for singer/guitarist Geoff Union has corrected that omission with “Cold As Steel,” a “true life” tale rich in detail about his grandfather pilfering one such corrugator and hauling it south to Cape Fear in 1940. There, in a metaphorical sense, it reshapes his life.
That’s just one of six singularly or co-written originals the Austin, Texas-based Union includes along with two original instrumentals on his debut CD. Two of those songs are moonshiner songs, one of them, “Spirit Of 94,” probably the only bluegrass song about the Whiskey Rebellion, the other, “Lewis Redmond,” a dance-like song about a ne’er-do-well liquor seller whose neighbors remember him as the “sunshine of our lives.” Think of the latter song as a more intense “Dooley.” As with “Cold As Steel,” both are great visual songs.
More opaque is the opener, “Devil’s Card.” It’s hard to get a handle on what’s going on, but it appears someone is coming for the protagonist, and he’s waiting with a gun. What’s fascinating is the way the lyricist, Jim Harris, compresses time by cataloguing the surroundings down to the flick of a cat’s tail. That leads to the even more vague “40 Years,” a song that makes heavy use of Biblical imagery and seems to be about a life as a long struggle toward redemption. As with all the songs on this entertaining debut, you’ll need several airings to catch all the details.
Supporting Union (and his impressive guitar work) are mandolinist Billy Bright, bassists Steven Crow and Dom Fisher, banjoist Mark Maniscalco, fiddler Ricky Turpin and vocalist Christina Union. All of them give stellar performances but really shine on the Celtic-style reel, “Fannie At The Front Door,” and the gypsy jazz/Miles Davis blend of “Half Past Zero.” (Shining Castle Music, 7301 Anaqua Dr., Austin TX 78750, www.geoffunion.com.)BW
FAME CD review for "Cold as Steel" July 2012
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It is hard not to love an album which starts off like a cross between Hot Rize and the Tony Rice Uni...It is hard not to love an album which starts off like a cross between Hot Rize and the Tony Rice Unit with music straight out of the best of the best of the modern bluegrass players over the past three or four decades. I fell in love with bluegrass when I was a kid, when Jimmy Martin swept across my radar, and that love journeyed through groups like The Seldom Scene, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, the aforementioned Hot Rize and a string of groups including the venerable Bluegrass Album Band of which Tony Rice was a founder (along with J.D. Crowe). Man, you had to be able to pick to be in those bands and the picking on the opening track of Geoff Union's Cold As Steel album, Devil's Card, brought back the rush I feel each and every time I hear something far above the norm.
In my mind, there are various kinds of bluegrass. There is the flat-out pickin' bluegrass made famous by Flatt & Scruggs. There is the old-style mixture of voices and picking a la Bill Monroe. There is the beautiful and harmonious gospel-influenced bluegrass you hear when groups like Seldom Scene turn their eyes to the church (while I am a dyed-in-the-wool heathen, I definitely appreciate the inspiration of religion when it comes to music), and there is modern bluegrass which infuses all of the above and more. Union fits well within that last category, also inhabited by all of the groups in paragraph one.
I am old enough to remember the days that modern bluegrass was called "Newgrass". I remember a very young Tony Rice and Tim O'Brien (Hot Rize) and so many others. The music was a bit rougher back then, but over the years players and the technical guys have honed the edges. That smoothing of sound has brought a huge amount of listeners to the genre and now that Americana has gained a strong foothold amongst those who might not have found the music as palatable, this bluegrass hybrid is making waves.
Like I said, there is a lot of Tony Rice in Geoff Union, but there is a bit of David Grisman, also. He proves it with Half Past Zero, a bit of what they used to call "dawg grass" or "dawg music"—a combination of jazz and bluegrass which thrills. While it is basically jazz played on bluegrass instruments, it has a sound all its own and makes me smile. Beware, bluegrass fans, especially those who consider jazz honking geese music. Like bluegrass, there are many styles of jazz and if this isn't a gateway to jazz, I don't know what is.
Comparisons seem to be the only thing many readers can latch onto these days and I am reluctant to compare, but if it takes comparing to get some people to listen, let's list a few besides the ones above: John Reischman & the Jaybirds, Buck White & the Down Home Folks (also known as The Whites), Alison Krauss & Union Station, Carrie Hassler & Hard Rain, Steep Canyon Rangers, and The Infamous Stringdusters. And I barely scratched the surface. Still, that should give those of you who don't know bluegrass well a small indication of the company Geoff Union keeps, musically.
When I first heard this CD, I fully expected Union to be from Virginia or thereabouts. Turns out he is based in Texas. More proof that Texas absorbs more musical styles than just about anywhere else in the world. If I could stand the weather and the mere idea of a state voting in some of the biggest bastards to go political, I would consider moving there. They owe the rest of the country one hell of a lot for giving us the Bush's. It will take more than Geoff Union to make up for it. Then again, you throw him in with the seeming few millions of great Texas musicians, we're now a whole lot closer.
That's Cold As Steel, friends. Think Virginia. Hear Texas.
Central Texas Bluegrass Assoc. September 2012 Interview
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I had an opportunity to talk with one of Austin’s great guitarist and songwriters this month. We met...I had an opportunity to talk with one of Austin’s great guitarist and songwriters this month. We met at Café Pacha... - Tom Duplissey
(the interview is about 7 pages long, see the link for the whole thing!)
Rootstime "Cold as Steel" review (translated, poorly, from the Dutch)
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From Austin, Texas-based Geoff Union has been playing many years country and bluegrass music. He doe...From Austin, Texas-based Geoff Union has been playing many years country and bluegrass music. He does this for over 15 years with Billy Bright in the formation of "The Two High String Band," but in 2008 he also released his first solo album under the title "Big Sky Tonight".
For the sequel to that album did Geoff Union again called on his musical buddy for years. Billy Bright provided the record and work as a CD producer and he plays mandolin and mandola on the eight songs that were recorded for the second album "Cold As Steel". Other notable instruments in these songs are played by Mark Maniscalco banjo and fiddle when Ricky Turpin has given the best of themselves.
Geoff Union plays himself on acoustic guitar and sings a few songs with harmony vocals support of his wife Christina. Opening number "Devil's Card" and the subsequent "40 Years" songs which are typical bluegrass banjo and fiddle instrumental upper hand. In the songs "Lewis Redmond" and "Spirit Of '94" fascinating life stories are told on a bed of sounds that are classified as bluegrass music.
"Half Past Zero" and "Fanny At The Front Door" are two instrumental tracks where Geoff Union expanded his skills as a guitarist can demonstrate. And the best song on this album is to our taste accumulated until the end with "Water In The Well" in which Billy Bright is a good show can go on his mandolin.
The title track "Cold As Steel" is another song in the bluegrass style of the 80s with a driving, rhythmic drive and guitar playing. The added video review of this you can determine how it Geoff Union in presenting that song from bring.
This album consists of such typical American roots music and will for the average European, perhaps a little too strange to the ears. Other hand, our exploration of other cultures to our own continent and restrict what we can do by trying to broaden our knowledge by listening to this very specific bluegrass music.
December 2012 Radio Station List
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DECEMBER 2012 RADIO UPDATE: As of 12.8.12, Cold as Steel has been played on over 60 bluegrass ra...DECEMBER 2012 RADIO UPDATE:
As of 12.8.12, Cold as Steel has been played on over 60 bluegrass radio stations nationwide, including but not limited to the following (these include just the stations reporting to the Bluegrass Today chart. I’ll be adding the Bluegrass Unlimited reporting stations shortly):
KKRF Billy Dunbar
Bluegrass Planet Earth Col. Tom Taylor
World Wide Bluegrass Terry Poirier
live 365 - Bus of Real Country? Janice Brooks
Kindly Keep it Country KEOS Joe Angel
Bluegrass Radio Network Terry Herd
KSMU Seldom Heard Music Harry Moore
Great Stuff Radio Gene Skinner
WOBLBluegrass Borderline Michelle Lee
KZSC Radio, Folk Dept
UC Santa Cruz Chris Jong
WEZU Roanoke Valley Bluegrass Show Gordon Gray
KTHX Big Biscuit Broadcasting Don Darue
WBAG Buddy Michaels
WKWC/ Radio Bluegrass Int'l Bob Mitchell
WGHC Sara Jane Tomlin
WRFL Billy Meyers
KSON Wayne Rice
KCSN Frank Hoppe
WSKG Radio Programming Director Ken Campbell
WQDR Larry Nixon
WOPI Larry Gorley
Main St Bluegrass Roy Blackman
KAFM Veta Gumber
WAGS Jim Jenkins
WSLU String Fever Bluegrass Barb Heller
WMNF Tom Henderson
WKYR Terry Murphy
CJAM David Blakney
CITR Andrea Berman
Blue Side of Town w/Del McCoury Jon Weisberger
CKYC Don Day
WAMU Katy Daley
RSU Radio attn: Jeanie Jeanie Evans
WDRT Rusty James
WMTN Tim Carter
WSKV Bluegrass Breakout Angela Osborne
WUNH Pickin' Parlor Scott Donnelly
WAIF Bluegrass in the Valley Rita Small
WFDU Michael Stokes
WGCS Down Home Jim Fisher
WCYO Charlie Hall
WNCW Dennis Jones
KVMR County Line Bluegrass Show Eric Rice
KSMU Seldom Heard Music MIke Smith
WOPI Tina Jones
WOBO Bluegrass Showcase Chris Kelly
WOBO Bluegrass Luther Jackson
WLUR Dorsey Hostetter
we have enough material for 2 hour long sets and then some. mostly original with some "traditional" bluegrass standards.