Hard Drivin’ Carolina String Band

Calling Town Mountain a hard drivin’ Carolina string band is just the beginning of the story. While at first glance, one could assume they are a straight up bluegrass band, from about the first chord, you know you’re in for more than just another bluegrass concert. Not that this is a bad thing, but in this case, the fellas from Town Mountain don’t really care to fit into any one particular mold. They’ve been noted for being “raw, and soulful,” and possessing “plenty of swagger.” They’ve got a honky-tonk edge, and it’s loaded with influences spanning all genre’s and artists like Grateful Dead, Robert Hunter, and even Willie, Waylon, and Merle.

In 2005, Guitarist/vocalist Robert Greer and banjoist Jesse Langlais got together with a few friends to form a band, basically to attend and enter the RockyGrass festival band competition in Colorado that year. After winning, it sort of made sense to keep playing. The current line-up which also includes mandolinist Phil Barker, fiddler Bobby Britt, and Zach Smith on bass are on their sixth album as a band, New Freedom Blues.

Magic in the Mix
I caught up with Phil Barker recently to get a little more insight into the magic that makes Town Mountain click. Phil joined the band in 2007, after finding himself hanging out with the guys at different pickin’ parties along the way. “The theme of this has always been that the guys in the band like hanging out as much as they like playing together,” he told me. “A real cool side effect of the national scene, is that all the pickers of a certain generation, or younger generation get to know each other and hang out. Everybody loves playing roots music around here, so it has become it’s own thriving little roots community in that sense.”

Phil recalled the moment when things started to click for the band. “It was around the summer of 2008 when things really started to fill in for us. And we had to decide; alright, it’s time to make this commitment. That made the biggest difference on our tightness as a band and our overall focus. Everyone had to jump off the deep end, so to speak, and just commit to it. And that transpired into having more time to practice, and to write more, and improve our abilities with our instruments.”

While each guy held down part time jobs here and there, it had finally became the opportunity to purse the band life full time for the guys in Town Mountain. “We’ll still do it if need be,” regarding the side job aspect, Phil said. “But this is a great full time job,” he added. “Doing those other things puts it all in perspective. It beats swinging a hammer, that’s for sure.”

Writing Is The Difference
The members of Town Mountain writes nearly all of the songs the band perform, and Phil feels like the songwriting is actually the cornerstone of the band. “We’ve always felt that in the bluegrass scene, you have to write your own material to stand out. There’s such a vast repertoire of traditional songs that any band can play, and people do enjoy that; however in order to really make a name for yourself, and set yourself apart, you’ve got to do something that nobody else is doing. So, we’ve always been focused on that. We play some cover tunes here and there, but our passion has been around writing our own music.”

And, of course, they have certainly carved their own niche’ into the stringed roots sound. “I guess all of our influences outside of bluegrass make their way into what you’re doing as a musician,” Phil said. “The common theme is that we want to play stuff with a lot of energy, and play with a lot of intent and passion. It’s always been about not necessarily playing the slickest thing you can think of, but we’ve always been drawn to stuff that’s got a good swing to it and a good drive to it, whether it’s bluegrass, or rock, or whatever. And it helps that we all have similar tastes in that regard.”

“We definitely like to wear some of our influences on our sleeves. There’s a big rockabilly, almost Jerry Lee Lewis type of swing influence in a lot of songs we play, which we really enjoy doing, because people respond to that, maybe in a way that they don’t in a straight ahead bluegrass rhythm situation,” he said. We like a little bit of that and we like a little bit of the country swing, whether it be a Jimmy Martin bluegrass version of country music, or a Buck Owen version. I guess we could be considered outlaw since we’re not necessarily following the Bluegrass rules. I don’t know if we’re fully into that scene yet, but it’s a great group of musicians to be associated with though, there’s no doubt.”

Number Six on the Way
Album number six is set to officially release on October 5th entitled, New Freedom Blues. Caleb Klauder joined the band at Asheville’s legendary Echo Mountain Studios to produce this latest project. The 11-track set also features drummer and Sturgill Simpson collaborator Miles Miller, as well as a duet and co-write with Tyler Childers.  The album’s first single is the title track, “New Freedom Blues.”

“It’s somewhat of a departure from the bluegrass sound that we’ve typically recorded,” banjo player Jesse Langlais explained. “We took the songs at their face value in the studio this time, as opposed to trying to take a song and make it fit inside certain bluegrass parameters. It morphed into this idea that we should be playing the songs for what they are as opposed to what we thought they should be.”

Although the record is scheduled for a fall release, fans won’t have to wait to hear the new material. It’s already in the set list. “That’s something we like to do,” Phil said. We’ve been playing a lot of them all along. We like to road test songs we want to record because they’ll evolve along the way, more so on the road, in a live setting, than maybe in the studio.”

Phil told us that in the past they may have taken songs that the band members had written and tried to fit them into more of what a bluegrass band should sound like. “We’ve had some snare drum on songs in the past, but this is the first time where we got a full kit playing with us, so it’s made it into a bigger sound. It’s a little more rockin’ as far as the song styles go. We let the songs dictate what the feel is going to be, as opposed to trying to fit it into a mold. It was liberating in that respect. We just let the songs be the songs and not try to make them into something else. There’s still a lot of bluegrass stuff on here even with drums. You still get a straight edge bluegrass feel on a lot of the stuff.”

By Greg Tutwiler