I had the good fortune to attend the 2013 Telluride Bluegrass Festival, probably the most spiritually and geographically magnificent music gathering in the nation. And one of my fond memories is the annual band contest, held on a perfect blue sky day in June. I admit I went with a sentimental bias. I’d hoped to see The Barefoot Movement, a group I’d befriended, take the prize. But I was aware of their formidable competition in San Francisco’s Front Country.
California banjo master Bill Evans had tipped me to the talents of band co-founders Jacob Groopman and Melody Walker some time before, and when the group leaned in to the single mic and dove in with passion and clarity to their smartly modern bluegrass, I had to admit that it was their time. They had, and have, attitude, soul and a vision of bluegrass worthy of those Telluride peaks and valleys.
So now here I am in Raleigh, NC at the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) World of Bluegrass, and by happy fortune, Front Country is here playing showcases, meeting and greeting and talking about their brand new album Sake of the Sound. It was great to catch up with them, as they’ll be playing our Roots stage when we return to action with our Fall season opener and a Nature Conservancy benefit on Oct. 9.
Their name evokes the Front Range of Colorado, and they’ve been well received in that bluegrass loving state. But Front Country is a product of the California Bay Area legacy of ambitiously alternative acoustic roots music that includes David Grisman, Mike Marshall and Darol Anger. Walker and Groopman hooked up as a songwriting and picking duo but rather soon rounded up some superb pickers to join them, though without big plans.
“This was kind of a reluctant band in some ways,” Walker told me in a group interview. “We started off just a group of friends playing in the Mission District for a residency gig. Then we just decided to enter the Rockygrass competition and ended up winning that. And none of us had been to Telluride before so we entered that band competition too. It was just kind of sign after sign that we should keep pursuing it.”
Including last spring, when Melody won a first prize at the Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting Contest. Not to get too hung up on awards, but that last laurel shows how seriously the band takes songwriting. All the groove in the world is kind of empty calories without it.
“The songs and the sort of virtuosic picking is the core of this band,” Walker said. “There’s definitely that mix of kind of new acoustic instrumental coolness that we all really dig and then real songs with a capital S.”
Our Music City Roots bill this week wasn’t planned as a World of Bluegrass roundup, but it sort of takes on that mantle with a return appearance by Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers. I saw them do a few songs here on an outdoor stage, and their precise, heartfelt and traditional sound continues to blow me away. They did one of their signature gospel numbers (the final track on the new Another Day From Life album) called “Because He Lives,” and I don’t care if you’re Christian, Jew or a Druid, that’s going to move you to feel the spirit of something big and high.
Since I don’t mind plagiarizing myself and since Joe was kind enough to quote my last Roots column on his website, I’ll share that blurb here:
“Joe Mullins is a classic character who could slip through a time machine to about 1961 and move around comfortably. And he’d be among the coolest cats there in his Ohio home, fronting a bluegrass band and owning AM radio stations. Which is what he does now. And that voice! Whether speaking or singing, it’s arresting and comforting at the same time.”
And speaking of awards, Joe’s band was IBMA’s Emerging Artist of the Year in 2012 and he’s picked up a pile of other industry prizes besides. His duo project out this year with equally old school Junior Sisk called Hall of Fame Bluegrass nearly won this year’s top album prize. Between Joe and Front Country, we’re talking about exemplars of the twin poles of the music, the very dichotomy that makes it a beautiful and vital genre.
Don’t let this prize winning bluegrass double shot obscure the remarkable return of Jeff Black to Roots. It’s been too long since we last heard his rich baritone and his authoritative and literate songs stir our souls. Jeff is a Nashville veteran but a songwriter deeply respected in songwriting hubs like Kerville, TX and Boston MA. In fact the listeners of WUMB up in Beantown voted Black onto a list of the 100 most important folk musicians of the last 25 years. We know well of his many songs cut and performed by his friend Sam Bush, but his compositions have also been covered by Alison Krauss, John Oates, Waylon Jennings and others. It’s hard to believe he’s quietly released 10 albums, the latest being Folklore. If you’ve never heard Jeff you’ll be stunned by his subtle power.
Rounding out the bill will be young Gareth Laffely, a Native American songwriter and artist. This one will be new to me, so I’ll be right there with you, in full Roots discovery mode. Join us for a new Fall season in the Factory. You’ll prize the experience.