Keep on the grass, the bluegrass - Town Mountain
Ashville North Carolina Town Mountain band member banjo player Jesse Langlais shares his thoughts on the making of band’s new album Southern Crescent and the world of bluegrass music. How a band from there got to record an album down in the crawfish capitol of the world, Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. Plus the fact they are the debut act of the new record label Lohi records out of Greenboro, NC.
Hello, Jesse I love the clean sharp sound of the band.
We are nearer to tradition than a lot of new bluegrass acts coming round. Yeah, there is a lot of different bluegrass sounds and a lot of contemporary bands here in the United States. I feel like Town Mountain gets to hold on to a little bit of history of the tradition and what it used to be like.
When and how did Town Mountain come about.
Robert, the lead singer and myself are quote unquote original members of the band and I think less than a year later Phil (Barker) who plays mandolin came on board. I claim him to be also an original member, that all happened around 2006. The band had been doing some stuff from 2005, but I think 2006 had it became more official. All three of us though not form Asheville we ended up there. I have been here 15 years and Robert and Phil a year less. We met through the music scene here in Asheville, and where many different genres of music that go way beyond bluegrass and old time music the circles that we hung out in are played. There were weekly jams back then that all of us went to every Thursday and Sunday, and that is where we cut our teeth as bluegrass musicians. We kind all became friends and a couple of years passed and we were all in other projects, and then Robert and I who had been hanging out together. Working on writing material we said, let’s put a tour and band together and see if it can happen. That is how it unfolded.
When you were younger who would be your heroes and biggest influences.
Well you know, personally, my musical tastes are all over the board. Two of biggest heroes are John Hartford and Ray Charles and though I may not sound like either of them I have listened to their music for thousands of hours, and grew up listening to Ray Charles. That was my parents doing. When I got into bluegrass I soon found out who John Hartford was and got aboard what he did. I will say that in the way that I play with Town Mountain, my heroes could be more in line with J.D Crowe. That is how I approach the banjo in Town Mountain. Seventies era of bluegrass banjo, Sonny Osborne, J.D Crowe and Allen Shelton, I like that era, 1970s and 1960s a whole lot.
In general, the late 1970s revitalised bluegrass music with the likes of Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley and of course Jerry Douglas and Peter Rowan.
I think one the greatest bluegrass influences was the (Rounder) 0044 or the brown album as some people call it, it is the general quintessential J.D Crowe and The New South. That is like the album! Ricky and JD are on there, which was like a new fresh crop of players experimenting with the sound. John Hartford was also pushing those sounds in a new direction too. I think the past eight – ten years have been similar for bluegrass music in that there are a lot of bands out there pushing the envelope, the same way they did in the 1970s (a good few from Asheville or who have recorded there, and North Carolina in general seems to be producing more than its share of exciting new acts).
You only need to look at the success of Chris Stapleton (formerly with The Steel Drivers) in country music.
Bluegrass music has given country music a good many fine vocalists, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley…the list is endless.
It really is. A lot of country stars cut their teeth playing bluegrass music. Even Dirks Bentley who is one of the mega country pop artists of today he used to play bluegrass in Nashville, because one of Town Mountain’s bass players played with him. It is an open pathway for some musicians for sure.
Asheville isn’t only a hotbed for exciting bands; it is also the location for a lot of good recordings.
Yeah, right now the scene is the richest it’s ever been. There are a lot of talented bands out there, and a lot of them are close friends of mine. It is not a big city and nice to be on the floor of this great scene.
As for your recordings you had Mike Bubb produce a couple of your records with Pinecastle.
He did, he produced Steady Operator and Leave The Bottle album.
It was a big move for you to bring in Dirk Powell to produce Southern Crescent.
Well, we were riding down the road in the van and were bouncing ideas of who we wanted to produce the album. Several names came up but one kept being noted, Dirk Powell and the reaction was always the same. Yes, I’m in! He was always the unanimous one, he has similar connections to music as ours and in what we like. The sound and groove of music, he also is most respected in so many styles of music; the old-time, the Cajun and the folk circle and the country circle. He is a well-rounded musician, and the material we had was our most rounded and…a little bit of everything. It just made sense to go for someone who wasn’t quote, unquote a bluegrass figure. Go with someone who had a little more sensibility about different styles of music, and it worked out for the best I think.
Had you all the songs written when you started to record the album?
Most of them were written. The way Town Mountain typically goes about that process is we bring songs to the table and we try them out on the road. Some might be two months old, others might be as old as six months and it helps to craft the song. Performing it several times a week in a live setting. It helps you figure out the arrangements and how the vocals should go. I think on the album and we have done this before there were a couple of tracks that were completely new, but most of them they were road tested songs. If we get positive responses live from people we know it is a good song and will then work on it a little more.
On one song on the album you talk of travelling on the road to Baton Rouge in Louisiana was it about your trip to record the album down there.
I think that song “Comin’ Back To You” was technically written before we knew we were going to Louisiana, and work with Dirk so it was kind of serendipitous. It was from about a year before when we were going to a festival in Lafayette called Black Pot, it’s a great festival. If you ever get the chance to go you must go. It is very unique and amazing experience, when we were down there Robert wrote that tune. You have to drive through Baton Rouge to get to Lafayette from where we are from so I guess he got that idea on that trip. He also talks about a couple of other towns throughout the country we really enjoy and like to go to.
Lafayette of course is a huge Cajun stronghold.
It is the Mecca for Cajun music. You have the Savoy family and before them the Balfa family. I think the Savoys (Ann and Marc Savoy and family) have almost kind of revitalised the music and brought it to a more popular level. They started doing that in the 1970s and 1980s. It was through the festival scene we met Joel Savoy there, one of their sons and became good friends with him. We already knew there was one or two songs we wanted to add some cajun flavour so we had him and his brother, Wilson to join us for second fiddle and piano on “Comin’ Back To You” and we used some other elements of the cajun scene down there. Unfortunately, the tunes like on one track we had Dirk on accordion and a great Cajun thing going but we didn’t use them on the album. I am bummed out about that, but that is how the cookie crumbles reflects Langlais.
That is interesting, I noticed Dirk plays drums on the record, and how is such an unassuming kind of guy likes to take a back seat and thought it a bit of a waste him not being more involved. His accordion, guitar, fiddle, banjo and piano playing are extraordinary.
He is a most tasteful musician. He just knows what to play and when to play it and is always conscious of all that is going on around him.
Getting to hang out down in Breaux Bridge is an experience itself.
Yeah, he has a nice compound and studio there, it is right on the bayou and his mother has a house right there. It is also the crawfish capitol of the world so we ate some good food there. Before going down there we were all excited that we were going to be hanging out in Breaux Bridge and Lafayette, playing music and parting with our friends but in the end we did a lot of work down there. We pretty much put our nose to the grindstone and really focussed on the album while down there.
You tend to share the songwriting out as a band, as for the lead vocals how does it go.
Robert does most of them, Phil sings lead on a couple of tunes, and in a live setting I’ll sing lead every now and then. On this album Phil sings lead on one maybe two and it is kind of the formula. For us and for bluegrass music the vocals play such a defining part of what a band’s sound is, and you need to get that over to your audience and fans.
I was most impressed with your first composition on the record “House With No Windows” the lead vocals are terrific.
Robert sings lead on that, and I wrote that song. That is part of the challenge and also part of excitement of being a songwriter in a band when you write a song for someone else to sing. It makes you try to be more creative in the process, because you will often write a song, and think about the person singing it. I will often write a song with me singing it and re-write it for Robert to sing it. That is always fun to do.
Apart from snagging Dirk Powell as producer you are also the debut act for a new record label, LoHi Records.
I had to give that crew the credit, Chad Staehly, Jim Brooks, Tim Carbone (Railroad Earth) and Todd Snider for just saying lets start a record label in 2016! It takes guts. I think they have a good idea of what they are trying to do and incorporate it on that label. There are not a lot of labels doing that. Taking those multiple roots projects and putting them together. The smaller label always seem to be genre specific, you have got the small jazz labels but here they are trying to pull people from the rock and singer-songwriter circle and us from the bluegrass circle, and having Tim Carbone from Railroad Earth the Jam circle are in there too. I like where they are going, creating a nice, diverse roster. Not pigeon hole themselves to a certain kind of label. With most things these days you need to be able to diverse your self no matter what your business may be. I think it is a smart move on their part, and it is really cool being the first release on a brand new label. That is a first for Town Mountain. We were with Pinecastle in the past that was a well-established bluegrass label, but this is different. It’s exciting to be in from the start, we want to foster this relationship and the guys running it have good heads on their shoulders.
With Todd Snider and Tim Carbone and the other contacts from the label it will no doubt open different and diverse doors for Town Mountain.
Right, from the start we did no want to be considered just a bluegrass band, yes we love it and play hard-driving bluegrass but we also cover singer-songwriter, boogie Woogie-ish or honky tonk or old style country. So, collectively being able to bring all these sounds to the one table has been perfect for us and we are thankful that we are able to do that.
As for your songwriting is it something that comes easy.
I have multiple variations that come and go. Usually a little something triggers, and I will take it and work on it. Like with “House With No Windows” ….what is that old saying a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. I was thinking of that one day and the line a dollar in my pocket is worth two on the table came from. It was like, okay let’s do something along those lines and it went from there.
- Artist Website http://www.townmountain.net/
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