Image 1. Town and country: Asheville’s Town Mountain embraces classic country themes like love, loss, heartache and hardship. Photo by Jason Beverly
Image 2. Morgan Geer of Drunken Prayer leads a country-noise send off to the world as we know it at Broadway’s.
In case the Mayans weren’t joking, Town Mountain prepares to play us out in style
who: Town Mountain with The Shawn Camp Band
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Friday, Dec. 21 (9 p.m. $10 advance or $12 day of show. http://www.thegreyeagle.com)
It’s been a preternaturally warm December, so far. And the news about the polar ice caps isn’t good. Add to that the impending end of the Mayan Calendar (Friday, Dec. 21), which may or may not spell out the final farewell for life on earth.
So, why not throw a party?
“We’ve probably played The Grey Eagle in December for the last two or three years, and it just happened that the 21st was open,” says Jesse Langlais, banjo player/founding member of Asheville-based bluegrass outfit Town Mountain. “It made sense to bill it as ‘the end of the world bluegrass bash.’ If the end of the world is going to get some more people out to the show, that’s great.”
Actually, Friday would be an inconvenient time for the world to end, as far as Town Mountain is concerned. This year has been an especially good one on the band’s steady upward trajectory. In May, their song “Diggin’ on the Mountain Side” was included on world music label Putumayo’s first-ever Bluegrass compilation. Their newest effort, Leave the Bottle, debuted in September at No. 4 on the Bluegrass Today Radio Chart; it was sitting at No. 8 on the Roots Music Report top 50 bluegrass chart at press time.
But Town Mountain didn’t have that sort of success in its sights at the start. The first iteration of the band (born out of jam sessions) was Langlais and lead singer Robert Greer, with Barrett Smith (Shannon Whitworth) and Jed Willis (Wooden Toothe). “The four of us came together by chance. We all knew each other and then we booked a tour,” Langlais remembers.
A year later, mandolin player Phil Barker joined, and then fiddler Bobby Britt signed on full time. Langlais says that Town Mountain used “upwards of 15 or 16 fiddle players” before Britt came along. With the solidified lineup, the group found a common goal and a sound to call its own. “Three years ago was when we were like, ‘OK, there’s something here,’” says Langlais. “Three years ago was when I stopped working my full-time job.”
Part of what defines Town Mountain’s particular brand of old-school-meets-contemporary bluegrass is its variety of voices. Bottle’s songs run the gamut from serious to silly. String parts are a sturdy backbone to tear-jerkers like "Away from Home" and fast-paced feats of picking like "You Weighed Heavy on my Heart." "Lawdog" opens a cappella, with Barker's vocal hitting notes that border on yodel territory. Opener "Lookin’ in the Mirror," is all sinuous fiddle and bouncy banjo, along with plenty of cheek: "Time can take its toll in so many different ways. I get more distinguished, you grow old and gray," goes the verse.
“It wasn’t a pre-calculated thing,” says Langlais. The tracks on Bottle comprise the final cut from songs brought to the table over the past two years. But Town Mountain’s sound is more than the sum of its parts. The band is interested in the roots of country music — songs with “a little grit and a little rough around the edges,” as Langlais puts it.
“The thing about country music is it’s been around since the 1930s, and a lot of the content is basically the same: love, loss, heartache and hardship,” Langlais says. Town Mountain is interested in that genesis of the genre: “Rural Americans struggling and telling their story through song.”
One ally they’ve found for that mission: Mike Bub (Del McCoury Band member, producer of Steep Canyon Rangers’ One Dime at a Time) who helmed both Bottle and its predecessor, Steady Operator. Langlais describes Bub as “a country music and bluegrass historian,” and “a pleasure to be around.” Luckily, Town Mountain will get to be around Bub some more: The producer plays in the Shawn Camp Band, who shares the Grey Eagle bill.
As for Dec. 21’s end-of-the-world forecast, Langlais speculates, “My prediction is we’ll play a great show and then on Dec. 22, we’ll all still be here.”
Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.