Taste of the times

The first beverage that springs to mind when you think of mountain music probably isn’t beer — especially not upscale, craft-brewery beer — but something a little more prosaic and potent that comes out of a jug.

Here in Asheville, though, where it’s safe — perhaps safer — to expect the unexpected, beer and bluegrass make a likely cocktail. And nowhere is this more evident than at the Craft Brewers Invitational Brewgrass Festival, now in its fourth year.

The legal pitfalls of hosting a moonshine-tasting event aside, there’s no denying that the tie-in offers a certain traditional appeal. But then, the beer/bluegrass thing is perhaps a natural evolution that complements the changes (some might say liberties) introduced in traditional bluegrass music by the younger, modern practitioners of newgrass, “jam” grass, et al.

After all, these mavericks are generally not mountain bands playing jugs and washboards — and their audiences are as likely to tool up to the event in an SUV than a Beverly Hillbillies-styled jalopy. In fact, these days, the image of someone clambering out of the latter vehicle and taking a healthy swig-or-five from a properly manipulated jug (there’s a decided knack to jug-swigging) is far harder to conjure up than the nontraditional mix of styles and flavors that is the Brewgrass Festival.

Consider the wide variety of bands on the menu this year (along, of course, with 100 different microbrews, ready for the sampling from more than 25 regional small breweries): everything from the Tony Furtado Band, led by its young namesake picker and his much-lauded technical wizardry; to local favorites Sons of Ralph, featuring the venerable Ralph Lewis (formerly of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys); to the top-billed Yonder Mountain String Band.

Touted as presenting “psychedelic boogiegrass from the Colorado high country” (they hail from Nederland, just outside Boulder), the Yonder Mountain String Band — generally and thankfully abbreviated as YMSB — is quite obviously not your father’s bluegrass band.

So, other than sounding pretty far removed from traditional mountain music, what exactly does “psychedelic boogiegrass” mean? For starters, it means including an Ozzy Osborne song in your repertoire. And what does “psychedelic boogiegrass” sound like? Well, it sounds like “psychedelic boogiegrass” — the term isn’t nearly as inapt as its deliberate outrageousness suggests. The YMSB vibe is smooth and accomplished, polished but not homogenized to the point of blandness — and, yes, it’s very much grounded in traditional bluegrass.

It just doesn’t quite want to stay there.

The musicianship here is uniformly excellent, and the tenor voice of mandolin player and frequent singer Jeff Austin unique, almost startling. What’s particularly noteworthy is that no matter how far afield from tradition the band strays, it manages to retain the sense of that tradition, creating a sound at once challenging and comfortingly familiar.

Their “Half-Moon Rising,” from Elevation (Frog Pad Records, 2000), not only offers a title that echoes the Creedence gem “Bad Moon Rising,” but the song’s theme — a longing for home — is a central one to both mountain music and classic rock. The result is bluegrass that’s been filtered through an idealized hippie vision. Unlike much music in this vein, though, the ultimate sense is wistful, but never mournful — perhaps YMSB’s most infectious quality is that while tackling diverse themes (“Mental Breakdown” is one interesting variation), they never become even slightly morose. The lyrics are hopeful, the sound generally fun. Better yet, they actually sound as if they, too, are having fun — and that’s a quality that transcends all question of genre, a commodity that can’t be bought or faked with PR.

So, much like the very concept of a brewgrass festival, the band seems more natural than not for the times. None of this may be traditional, but it does promise lively fun — and certainly, having 100 flavors of beer to choose from never hurt anyone’s good time.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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