ASHEVILLE — In much the same way that iconic southern dishes such as Louisiana gumbo or Brunswick stew can include any number of flavorful ingredients, so too does bluegrass music rely on a recipe that can vary wildly, depending on who’s doing the cooking. For Asheville, North Carolina-based bluegrass band Town Mountain, the key ingredient of the musical stew that is their career-defining fifth album, Southern Crescent, is the same confident – yet entirely embraceable – swagger that has distinguished the group since they first formed in 2005. The new album is due out on April 1, 2016 on LoHi Records.
With an insatiable musical hunger, the members ofTown Mountain (Robert Greer on vocals and guitar, Jesse Langlais on banjo and vocals, Bobby Britt on fiddle, Phil Barker on mandolin and vocals, and Nick DiSebastian* on bass) made their way to the little south-central Louisiana town of Breaux Bridge, where they recorded their most cohesive, most satisfying album to date. Produced by legendary GRAMMY-winning musician (and Louisiana transplant) Dirk Powell at his Cypress House studio, with low-swooping live oak trees and the picturesque Bayou Teche nearby, Southern Crescent is nothing less than a musical tour-de-force. Adam Chaffins* plays bass in the touring outfit.
The 2013 winners of IBMA Momentum Awards for Performance Band and Vocalist of the Year (Robert Greer), Town Mountain has earned raves for their hard-driving sound, their in-house songwriting and the honky-tonk edge that permeates their exhilarating live performances, whether in a packed club or at a sold-out festival. Just as a gumbo recipe starts with the “holy trinity” of staples (onions, bell peppers and celery), and can contain a wide variety of additional ingredients and inspiration, the hearty base of Town Mountain’s music is the bluegrass triumvirate of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. It’s what else goes into the mix that brings it all to life both on stage and on record and reflects the group’s wide-ranging influences – from the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and the ethereal lyrics of Robert Hunter, to the honest, vintage country of Willie, Waylon and Merle.
Southern Crescent was recorded in a decidedly old-school way, live, with minimal fixes and overdubs, with all the musicians in the same room and no noise-reducing baffling between them. The result: a raw, soulful album that prompted iconic singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale to enthuse in the liner notes, “The first time I heard Town Mountain I loved, respected, and enjoyed them. And I do now more than ever. They have stuck with their deep bluegrass roots but as they have with all of their releases, they have grown and expanded. They sound like Carolina, and they carry that sound farther and farther with Southern Crescent, their latest gem.”
In spite of not having worked with Powell as their producer before, singer-songwriter Robert Greer says he walked away from the experience “thinking this is how I want to record every record from this point on.” It probably didn’t hurt that Powell’s mom, who lives next door to the studio, was keeping the group supplied with coffee and homemade chocolate chip cookies.
The new album is being released on LoHi Records. Based in Greensboro, N.C., the label is a partnership formed by entrepreneur and marketing veteran Jim Brooks with singer/songwriter and record producer Todd Snider, record producer Tim Carbone (who also plays fiddle in newgrass band Railroad Earth) and Chad Staehly from Gold Mountain Entertainment in Nashville.
Each of Town Mountain’s members contributed songs to Southern Crescent, with Barker, Langlais and Greer the chief writers in the band. A democratic process determines what they’ll record, but the greatest factor, especially on the new record, is audience reaction, which is basically what led to release of the band’s first official live album, Town Mountain: Live At The Isis, in 2014. “We’ve gone into the studio before with new stuff but every tune on this record had been road-tested,” says Greer. “We go in to the recording situation and we have our tunes arranged already because we’ve been playing them on stage. That’s a contributing factor to successfully being able to record them live, because we’re used to doing them night after night.”
From the boogie-woogie piano of Jerry Lee Lewis that inspired the delightful (and danceable) “Coming Back to You,” to Greer’s cleverly penned and fast-paced “Tick on a Dog,” which offers a taste of another major bluegrass influence, Jimmy Martin, Southern Crescent is tailor-made to keep live audiences on their feet, but it’ll also keep those who think they can easily peg Town Mountain on their toes. “With live music, anything can happen,” Greer acknowledges. “It’s not supposed to be perfect but does it have soul!”
The music, perhaps, should also come with a road map. As Langlais explains, “A lot of the material is based around traveling. You start to peel back the lyrics of the songs and see that a lot of the material is about being out on the road and the experiences – positive or negative – that we may have living the lifestyle.”
Just as the guys find a wealth of musical inspiration in each other, there’s admittedly a little frustration that comes from being in a band with several other gifted songwriters at the same time. As Langlais explains, “You want to make sure you’re up there and everybody else is feeling the same about you. It’s good to have multiple writers in the band because it gives your audience more variety.”
That variety is indeed part of what drives Southern Crescent, which opens with Britt’s delightfully dizzying fiddle work on “St. Augustine,” and showcases Greer’s hard-country vocals on “House With No Windows” and on the freewheeling composition “Ain’t Gonna Worry Me,” (penned by Barker). The group members’ palpable chemistry (and individual artistry) are displayed throughout such instantly memorable tracks as “Wildbird,” (Barker) and “I Miss the Night,” which Langlais penned (with Mark Bumgarner) after experiencing 22 hours of daylight during Alaska’s summer solstice.
“Bands are constantly trying to define their sound, a sound that sets them apart from every other band, especially in genre as small as bluegrass,” says Langlais. “Our approach has been to find what our sound inherently will be and build off of that. Granted, we are taking a piece of what Bill Monroe’s band did in order to make our own bluegrass band. That’s just inevitable. But he borrowed from all these other genres, too – rock ‘n’ roll, country music, Scots-Irish fiddle music. I think we have realized what our sound is with this album.”
Greer, who hosts occasional nights of acoustic classic country and bluegrass in Asheville called Cornmeal Waltz (after a Guy Clark song), understands the music-food connection, saying that no matter what goes into gumbo or Brusnwick stew, they’re still “as southern as red clay.” The same is certainly true of Southern Crescent, Town Mountain’s prize-worthy signature dish.