The Howlin’ Brothers are not actually brothers. Nor are they Southern. Well, not exactly. The trio (Ben Plasse on upright bass, banjo, vocals; Ian Craft on fiddle, banjo, vocals; Jared Green on guitar, harmonica, vocals) are from Massachusetts, upstate N.Y. and Wisconsin, respectively. But they’ve been in Nashville for going on a decade, honing a sound that started with a love of acoustic music and evolved through picking parties and influential musical friends (check out their Asheville connection in the second question, below).
The Howlin’ Brothers play The Grey Eagle on Saturday, May 11. 9 p.m., $8 in advance or $10 day of show. In advance of that performance, Craft talked to Xpress about the band’s “nice gumbo of styles and tastes.”
Mountain Xpress: First of all, I get the sense from your videos, your photos and (probably most importantly) your music that you’re really having a great time. Is that the case? If so, how do you keep it light and fun, when the music business is notoriously difficult, competitive and heart-breaking?
Ian Craft: We try and keep the music at the forefront and not let the other parts of the business morph into our sound. It is a tough business but every night we get to bring positive good energy to people who give it right back to us and that keeps it pretty fun and rewarding! We are very blessed.
Warren Haynes guests on and co-wrote “Big Time.” You know he’s from Asheville, right? So how did you all connect with him?
Warren is such an awesome guy! We got hooked up with Warren through Brendan Benson. They had a writing date that conflicted with the making of Howl, our new record produced by Brendan, so he asked Warren if he felt like coming and hanging. [Warren] came and recorded and hung out all day. It was an honor! He is a truly salt-of-the-earth kind of guy!
Tell me how three guys from up North have so much Southern soul. Is the grit and stomp and dirty south-ness of the band something that’s evolved over time (and maybe through being in Nashville), or were you attracted to Appalachian /old-time /road-house sounds earlier?
Yes, I think living in Tennessee has certainly influenced our sound as well as all three of us coming from very different musical backgrounds which leads to a nice gumbo of styles and tastes. Living in Tennessee has been such an awesome experience. There is so much good music going on all the time! You can’t help but learn new things everyday. The Howlin’ Brothers will be evolving forever, I think..
In your bio, Plasse says, “I think we’re more willing to take risks with arrangements and style. We’re not afraid to do anything we can pull off that that we think is groovy.” But you all are actually schooled in music. Does that training ever make it hard to improvise and break rules? Was it something you had to overcome at some point? Also, how do you feel that your musical education helps in the records you’re making these days?
Our formal music training was really just good exposure to the possibilities that are out there. All three of us had the good fortune of having awesome teachers — Gordon Stout, Pablo Cohen and Steve Brown all pointed us in the direction of experimenting and figuring out what works for our own styles. It’s never felt like it’s stifled our creativit; only added to it. We seem to take the approach loose and sloppy, but above all a great vibe. We don’t spend time worrying on fast notes or super-tight arrangements. We let the night and the music take us where it will, that’s what keeps us and the crowd on our toes.
What is your experience living in Nashville as that city is kind of exploding? Is it hard to get a toehold among all the hopeful musicians, or do you feel that the level and amount of talent pushes you to be better and work harder for what you want?
Nashville is exploding, but I think it’s awesome. Like any city, it is what you make of it, and Nashville has been good to us for about a decade now. There’s always room for good music. Sure, it’s competitive, but that makes for a good scene. Everyone is trying their hardest to make a statement and that’s a great atmosphere to live in! It’s similar to Asheville in the fact that there are a lot of talented, artistic people around and that’s exactly the kinda place we like being in!
Photo by Loyda Cruz