York-based bluegrass-inspired band balances tradition and progress
Waitin’ On A Train is a band that could’ve ended practically before it began.
The group’s bassist – 19-year-old prodigy Adam Sullivan – died after falling from Chickies Rock in Lancaster County in 2006, shortly before the release of Waitin’ On A Train’s debut album, In the Path of Pain.
The York-based trio also included Tony Staub on mandolin and occasionally tenor banjo, and Paul Wykowski on guitar. By the time that first album was released, they had already amassed a loyal local following throughout York County.
Staub and Wykowski weren’t sure at first whether they’d be able to replace Sullivan. They’d met him at the York County Fiddler’s Convention, and he instantly clicked with his older bandmates. His style and musical influences and interests were a perfect fit for Waitin’ On A Train.
But in early 2007, Bert Streavig joined the group on bass and sometimes fiddle, and the band was able to reinvent itself without compromising the signature style its local fan base had come to love. Like Sullivan, Streavig was musically intuitive and adept (Staub claims that the only instrument Streavig doesn’t know how to play is the hurdy gurdy), and he, too, clicked with his bandmates right away.
Now in their 11th year and with four albums to their credit, the band members have been judicious in filling their performance calendar. When they first started, they’d take any gig. It wasn’t unusual to play as many as four shows during the week and every weekend. Over time, they scaled back to play more select local appearances and began to travel throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, from the Purple Fiddle in Thomas, WV, to the Ontario Barn Festival in Ontario, NY, where they’ve been featured for eight years running.
Locally, they’ve played the inaugural Indian Steps Museum Bluegrass Festival and performed at the Downtown Hoedown – a fundraiser for the Farm & Natural Lands Trust of York County – for all six years the event has been running.
“You don’t want to wear your audience out,” Staub reasons, “or wear each other out.” Being more selective about playing has garnered good results; it makes each performance a little more special and motivates fans to mark their calendars.
“I just think it’s smart business,” Staub says. “It’s just enough. We’d definitely consider taking on more shows at new venues, but the idea was not to wear out existing venues.”
As to style, it would be easy to classify Waitin’ On A Train as a bluegrass band, but it would be inaccurate. The bandmates are heavily influenced by the Stanley Brothers and Bill Monroe, and borrow heavily from Appalachian mountain music.
“I’m not sure we ever really fit a genre,” Staub says.
Bluegrass purists tell them they’re not bluegrass, while others insist they are. Staub can understand both perspectives. While traditional bluegrass tends to come from five-, six- or seven-piece bands whose members each have a distinct role, Waitin’ On A Train has always been a three-piece that shares musical duties according to the requirements of the song being played. But the instrumentation and singing styles mean they sound a lot like bluegrass.
“From 10,000 feet up,” Staub says, “a simple answer would be that we’re bluegrass-inspired; mountain-music-inspired.”
But it’s clear that they have also been inspired by rock music. What they’re known for is playing music with these influences loudly. They play their instruments hard, and their voices reach such crescendos that their shows end up having the rowdy exuberance of a tent revival. They bring something new and different to something very traditional, making them at once reverent and rebellious.
Staub played in punk bands when he was younger, which is easy to imagine when you hear how loud Waitin’ On A Train can be. But he was always interested in all kinds of music. He and Wykowski were listening to the Stanley Brothers long before they started playing together, and it inspired their singing style.
“We started out more singers than pickers,” Staub says. “We just kind of evolved into pickers.”
Staub has written most of Waitin’ On A Train’s songs, sharing songwriting responsibilities with Wykowski. Occasionally one of them brings a song to the group fully written and ready to go, but often they’ll start with some chords and then all three will collaborate on structuring the song.
That spirit of collaboration is likely to continue, even after Waitin’ On A Train adds a new member – especially if that person is also a songwriter.
Wykowski will no longer travel with the band for out-of-town shows, and the search is on for someone who will. They’ve posted announcements through social media and their email list, and have gotten about half a dozen responses so far.
Staub and Streavig are still willing to travel; the band’s geographic reach moving forward will be dictated by how far their new bandmate is willing and able to go. Wykowski will always be a member of Waitin’ On A Train but has decided to stay closer to home since his son was born. He’ll still play the York shows, so the hometown line-up will soon be a quartet.
Staub, Streavig, and Wykowski don’t know exactly how a new member will affect the group dynamic, but they plan to continue paying homage to the traditional American roots music that inspires them. The band’s ability to preserve tradition while embracing change – to balance reverence with progress – is one thing that will surely remain constant.
Despite an early tragedy that could’ve derailed the group entirely, it seems Waitin’ On A Train is in it for the long haul.
Waitin’ On A Train plays First Capital Dispensing Co. (57 N. Pershing Ave., York) on Saturday, November 22. 9pm. 21+.