Local maverick-bluegrass outfit Town Mountain is getting ready to release a new album, Steady Operator, on Pinecastle Records. The official release date is in May, but the band is throwing a pre-release party on March 19, so that their Asheville fans can get a copy of the new disc before anyone else.
Town Mountain is a five-piece, modern-traditional collaboration, meaning, the band uses the standard bluegrass instrumentation — guitar, fiddle, banjo, bass, and mandolin — but focuses on writing original music, as well as finding obscure covers and doing them Town Mountain style. I caught up with two of the founding members, Jesse Langlais (banjo) and Robert Greer (guitar and vocals), at the Universal Joint in West Asheville to talk about the new CD, their recording process, the Pre-release party and, really, all things Town Mountain.
What makes Steady Operator different from your previous releases?
Greer: We recorded this one live in the studio, we haven’t recorded another one that way.
Why did you want to record this album live?
Langlais: We all agreed that to set Town Mountain apart from other bluegrass bands, we needed to record what we’re all about, which is a live sound. A lot of the albums that are getting cut today in the bluegrass world are using the same formula: first you lay down your rhythm tracks, then you overdub everything and it starts sounding really homogenized. About 90 percent of our album is live.
Greer: There we are few spots that required some overdubs or some isolation, but the core of this album, the foundation of the songs, is recorded live.
Town Mountain had Grammy-winning bassist Mike Bub produce this album. Why did you want to work with Bub, and what was it like?
Greer: In his 13 years with the Del McCoury Band, Mike Bub recorded eight or nine albums live in the studio. When we knew we wanted to record that way, he was an obvious choice due to his experience. He was a pleasure to work with. He is so knowledgeable about country, bluegrass and old-time music, and he’s a great multi-instrumentalist.
Langlais: He’d grab your instrument and say, “Try something like this,” and play something amazing.
Greer: He had some tips and tricks about how to get things flowing for live recording. One of the biggest things he taught us was how to punch in as a band. You play the song the first time through as a band, with no click track. If you need to try something again, you can just play along with the song for a little bit before that place. Someone needs to replay his solo? Bam. You can do it as a band.
Langlais: As a producer Mike Bub has an exceptional grasp of the individual abilities of the players, the potential of the band, and is able to really bring out the best of what’s before him.
What is the songwriting/arranging process like for Town Mountain?
Langlais: Individuals tend to bring a song to the table, and then the band gives input on how the song will come together. Arrangements are very band oriented.
Greer: One thing that we think is a real strength of this group is that when new material comes along, we will try any idea at least once, to give it a whirl and see how it sounds.
Town Mountain and the Shannon Whitworth band just swapped members, Jon Stickley for Barrett Smith on bass — want to say anything about that?
Greer: It makes sense that you say “swap,” because there is no replacing a guy like Barrett Smith. We’ve been doing this for six years this summer, and when you’re in a band, so much more happens than just music. We are very fortunate to be able to bring Jon Stickley into Town Mountain, not only for his musicianship, but one thing we don’t have to do now, is break in a new personality. We’ve known Jon for ten years or so. We just did like a sports team trade, all very friendly, serendipitous.
What can people expect from the Grey Eagle show?
Langlais: You can bet there will be some jack-assery shenanigans, a passing of the torch; there will be some pageantry involved. Also pyrotechnics, smoke machines, go-go dancers. The Black Lillies will be coming from Knoxville to open up the show. Then we’re going to play the album, probably verbatim, with Barrett on the bass. After that we’ll have the ceremony, if you will, inducting Jon Stickley, and then he’ll play on a set of new songs we’ve been working up that no one has ever heard before. Kind of like, here’s what the new Town Mountain is all about.
— Stacy Claude is a local musician, freelance writer, and author of Asheville Roots Music Review at avlrootsreview.blogspot.com.
who: Town Mountain
what: CD pre-release
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, March 19 (9 p.m. $8/$10. thegreyeagle.com)