As the genre’ of string music continues to morph and evolve, musicians will continue to find new ways to craft sounds that are distinct and original. One such group is the California based band Front Country. A chance encounter with this touring ensemble at the Red Wing Roots Festival (a rich and diverse musical experience held each July in Virginia) left me wanting more from this up and coming string band.
The quintet features the soulful vocals of lead singer-songwriter Melody Walker, accompanied by mandolinist Adam Roszkiewicz, guitarist Jacob Groopman, violinist Leif Karlstrom and bassist Jeremy Darrow. Almost immediately, they have received high praise from around the music community; winning a Momentum award from IBMA as well as being nominated for the emerging artist award.
Fretboard Journal wrote, “They somehow strike that perfect blend of soaring vocals, impressive playing and interesting song choices.” The Herald, Scotland UK said, “Their music occupies a hinterland that extends much further than bluegrass, however, reaching into a beyond that at times makes them the missing link between Punch Brothers and the Penguin Café Orchestra and even extends to the prog rock of Family and King Crimson.” And Woody Platt of the Steep Canyon Rangers commented, “”Bluegrass, Progressive Bluegrass, Newgrass, Americana, Folk-Pop… In today’s music world it can be totally exhausting to try and put music in a box and deliver it under one clear, clean description. In this case, one thing is undeniable … this is damn fine music!”
I caught up with lead singer, Melody Walker not long after my first encounter with the band to get some insight into their skyrocketing career. “About five years ago, we started out by playing a gig in the Mission District in San Francisco, CA,” she recalled. “It was just a monthly gig – basically a pick up band essentially. We ended up playing that gig as the same group of people for several months. A couple of the band members had been out to the Rocky Grass Festival in Colorado before – and the other guys in the band were jealous, and wanted to check it out. So we decided that we would enter the band competition at the next festival – just to have an excuse to go to Rocky Grass. We went to the festival, and had a blast, and ended up winning the band competition – it was crazy. And we met so many friends for life that weekend too.”
The success was almost immediate with festival attendees wanting copies of the CD (which they didn’t have yet), and a way to keep up with their schedule (which was non-existent at the time). “I guess we’re a band now,” Melody recalled the band saying after winning the competition. “So the next day I set up a quick web site to be able to communicate with all the folks that were trying to reach out to us. And we immediately started booking gigs around the Bay area.”
They played mostly regional gigs in the beginning while they made arrangements to record their first record together. Sake Of The Sound came out in the fall of 2014. “It did really, really well for us,” Melody said. “We realized that we had happened onto something really good; And we realized that none of us had ever heard anything quite like the music we were creating. We all decided that we had a little something special going on.”
Each of the members had different projects going on at the time, and all were still in different bands. “When that album came out, things started happening, and we all shifted our focus to Front Country,” she said.
Melody said the band’s name isn’t an accident either. “Front Country – it’s the opposite of the back country; a nod to the fact that we’re a progressive string band. And that we’re looking forward, not backwards. I think the genre’s changing – people just don’t see the need to label it anymore. Just because we have a banjo doesn’t mean you are a bluegrass band.”
There is a distinctive California grass feel to their music. Some might call it New Crass, or progressive, but Melody feels like it’s just the sound you get when you put so many different influences together. “Each player in the band brought so many different influences into the band, that when it all meshed together, what came out was this distinct West Coast feel,” she commented. “Each of us came to bluegrass through so many different musical trails. Some of the members studied classical music, and others of us are fans of classic rock and folk roots legends like Grateful Dead. We have Jazz influences as well as folk music. So there’s just all these different influences, and I think they really come through in the music we are making, whether we like it or not.”
“We’ve been writing our own music since the beginning and steadily building our repertoire of songs,” she said. “We’ve always been about taking traditional songs and remixing them and rearranging them. For instance on the new record we have coming out next year we completely reinvented a Carter Family tune, “The Storms Are On The Ocean.” We did a similar thing with the Larry Sparks track, “Gospel Train,” that was on our first album. That’s a big part of who we are, but I’m really a song writer at heart, so penning originals will always be big part of who we are too. The majority of the new CD will be original songs that I wrote along with instrumentals from Adam, our mandolin player.”
While we await the next release from Front Country, there’s still a little taste to enjoy in the meantime. “We’ve always enjoyed doing covers of pop tunes,” Melody said, “so in between full length albums we decided to release an EP of some of our favorite pop covers. We thought it would be fun to learn them and rearrange them for a string band.” One of the feature cuts on the five song EP is a rendition of Don Henley’s “Boys Of Summer.” While this might draw comparisons to other grass bands offering covers of 80s and 90s pop tunes, rest assured, you’ll know it’s distinctively Front Country.
For the last two years they’ve been a full time touring band, with no end in sight. A planned move to Nashville, TN will create a nice mid-point to travel from while they continue to build their brand of grass; West Coast style, front forward. We look forward as well to what’s in store from this exciting string band.
By Greg Tutwiler