Big Daddy Love comes by its Southern rock-meets-bluegrass sound honestly. "My grandmother played guitar in Maybelle Carter-style, and I learned chords from her when I was young," says singer/guitarist Daniel Justin Smith. Banjo player Brian Swenk remembers, "My dad was a rock 'n' roller. He played The Beatles and got to open for The Allman Brothers."
But, in a twist, Swenk rebelled against his roots by getting into bluegrass, while Smith, instead of continuing in the roots and folk vein, got more into blues rock. And then those paths crossed. Big Daddy Love's current lineup formed last summer when high school buddies Smith, Swenk and guitarist/vocalist Matteo Joey Recchio all reunited after a decade or so. "We did a trio thing, just acoustic, and everything just fit," says Smith. "The timing was right."
Within a few months they had added bassist Ashley Sutton and drummer Kelly Linville.
The result is evident in the band's captivating album, To the Mountain, recorded at Echo Mountain and produced by the venerable Aaron Price. Yes, this is mountain music: Swenk's banjo is a clear giveaway, especially on the twangy, fast-paced "Good Morning Sunshine." But there's also plenty of rock swagger. Recchio shreds, Linville lays into his drum kit and Smith's vocals have a pleasantly gritty Gregg Allman quality.
So, did they orchestrate the "something for everyone" melding of rock and roots? "We truly played whatever was in our hearts and just came from our experiences," says Swenk. "Man, it mixed in a great way. There was no trying. It was kind of like a freight train — you just had to get out of its way."
"I tried so hard for a long time to make something happen," says Smith. "Then I quit trying and it was like, 'Oh wow, there it is!'"
On stage, the chemistry is palpable. Big Daddy Love performs as a whole band but also morphs easily to a jazzy-infused trio, a bluegrass-y duo and a singer/songwriter solo act. The musicians can stop on a dime and change direction without so much as a sideways glance at each other, an ease Swenk says comes from growing up together in Sparta, N.C.
But Big Daddy Love's unity is also felt on the recording. Take "Spirit is a Window," a highlight on this 13-track collection. That particular slow burner drips soul, its dueling-keys parts (thanks to David McCracken on Hammond B3 and producer Price on piano) satisfyingly '70s and its melody line equal parts grungy and sweet.
And there are moments when the group's members know each other better than the individuals know themselves. Like when Smith was reluctant to record the emotive and elegantly-crafted original, "A Letter to Love (Story Song)." He couldn't be swayed until the group told him that the microphone he would be singing into was the same one that his hero, local troubadour Malcolm Holcombe, used to record Gamblin' House. "That just lit my eyes up. … I really look up to him in a lot of ways. That prodded me to get in there and try it," Smith recalls. By the third take, "It's pretty easy to tell that I sing through tears."
"When you work in the studio you do two things: You create moments and you capture moments," says Swenk. "That was a moment captured."
Big Daddy Love is happy to take the mojo out of the studio, too. The band's very name — originally a joke — is now a summation of the group's mission. Their Love Bus, run by the band's wives and girlfriends, hosts events like a recent book drive for Eliada Homes. "[The bus] is a nonprofit that helps other charities," says Smith. "We're just helping our where we can."
That, and their upcoming show at White Horse is — in Big Daddy Love's collective conscience — all about showcasing that struggling but desirable venue. "You travel around and you see so many rough places. Tiny stages right by the door and tough crowds," says Swenk. "To watch [White Horse owner] Bob Hinkle come in and make everything as good as he made it, it's such a special thing. We have to appreciate that; we can't let these things go by the wayside. This one is important to us."
Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Big Daddy Love with special guest Aaron Burdett
where: White Horse Black Mountain
when: Friday, May 28 (8 p.m. whitehorseblackmountain.com)