Album Review: Pickin’ On Nirvana – The Bluegrass Tribute Featuring Iron Horse

Through touring and modern day word of mouth (social media), the bluegrass band Iron Horse has attracted a diverse following. With a slew of tribute albums applying classic picking and twang to works outside of the bluegrass genre, the band has established itself as being reliably unpredictable, which earns credibility in today’s musical landscape. After taking on artists ranging from Metallica to The Shins to Guns & Roses, the group now tackles the sacred sounds of my youth with Pickin’ On Nirvana.

What sets Iron Horse apart from other one-off covers and tributes is their loving approach to each artist’s catalog of works. While many of Nirvana’s hits are included, it’s not a “best of” album–songs were clearly selected because they worked within the bluegrass style and the band could evoke the same emotional charge as Kurt Cobain and company did with the originals. I was excited to find one of my Nirvana favorites, “Pennyroyal Tea,” included in the track list–the ominous deep stand-up bass and mandolin capturing the depressive heart of the song. It’s impressive that the bluegrass version of the song has an even darker aura than the original–a credit to Iron Horse’s ability to expand on the underlying work.

It’s a hard task to be bright or uplifting when honoring the often morose works of Nirvana; the songs were written by a troubled soul for fans that embraced angst.  Unfortunately, an all too real depression inspired many of Cobain’s original songs, a bleakness even deeper than we realized prior to his tragic death. However, Nirvana had a knack for ironically taking gloom and mashing it up with hard rocking guitar riffs, which allows Iron Horse to work in some toe-tapping, uptempo tracks like “In Bloom” and “Sappy.” Their version of “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge On Seattle” substitutes lively banjo picking for angry guitar growl, yet still captures the base repulsion for bureaucracy and societal power.

The album pays strict emotional homage to Nirvana’s themes while creating something fresh. There is a duel genius brought out by Pickin’ On Nirvana: Cobain’s skill in crafting timeless works and the magical bluegrass approach of Iron Horse in honoring the classics.

[Purchase Pickin’ On Nirvana: The Bluegrass Tribute Featuring Iron Horse, set for a special vinyl Record Store Day first release on April 22nd with a digital release to follow April 28th:]

For more information on CMH RECORDS’ PICKIN’ ON series, visit:

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