“To this day, I’m still not sure why I’m doing what I’m doing,” admits Rob Teter, singer/songwriter and guitarist for the Austin, Texas-based roots-fusion collective The Belleville Outfit.
What Teter and the other five members of his band are up to is crisscrossing the country playing high-profile festivals and opening slots for the likes of Del McCoury and Lyle Lovett. They also have an ambitious roster of headlining dates and a recent album (their debut, Wanderin’, was self-released in February) to tour behind.
This sort of brisk pace is the best scenario for a working band, especially one composed of relative newcomers. But for The Belleville Outfit, both their success and workload arrived with the blink-and-you-missed-it haste of Cinderella’s pumpkin coach.
The story, told in Teter’s breathless, giggle-punctuated narrative, goes like this: As a high-school student, he played in country-swing quartet The DesChamps Band out of Spartanburg, S.C. They broke up when the group’s members headed off to college. But six months after that split, festivals were still trying to book the band. “The shining star of those,” reports Teter, was an offer to play MerleFest, the acclaimed Americana music festival held annually in Wilkesboro, N.C.
The guitarist may be only 21, but he knows an opportunity when one comes knocking.
“Since The DesChamps Band wasn’t really happening anymore, I tried to pitch this new thing I was doing with my friends in New Orleans,” he says. After leaving Spartanburg, Teter enrolled in the music program at New Orleans’ Loyola University. There he met pianist Connor Forsyth and drummer Jonathan Konya. To that new trio he introduced two DesChamps bandmates, bassist Jeff Brown and guitarist Marshall Hood. The final addition of Austin-based vocalist and violinist Phoebe Hunt (to whom Teter was introduced while on the road with The DesChamps Band) rounded out the rootsy big band.
The booking agent for MerleFest agreed to the upstart act under one condition: “She said, ‘You’ve got to have a name if I’m going to book you,’” Teter recalls. “So the next few days we sat around and had some beer and tried to come up with a band name.” The Belleville Outfit’s name pays homage to New Orleans (“belle ville” is French for “beautiful town”), notes the band’s Web site, as well as Gypsy-jazz virtuoso Django Reinhardt, who recorded a song called “Belleville.”
“This is what we got and here we are,” says Teter.
The Belleville Outfit’s first show was in April 2007. They hit the ground running with a string of shows that quickly established a fan base, but also meant that “at a certain point we were kind of just touring endlessly,” Teter says. “Enough attention came from that so we were getting more offers and more things were booking. We had no record to tour behind, nothing to send people home with at a show.”
Though he describes Wanderin’ as the end product of “a scramble to get in the studio and get something done,” Teter quickly notes that the disc’s collection of vintage-flavored, upbeat acoustic tunes do the band proud. There’s a supple quality to the CD’s dozen songs: Americana tempered with hints of swing and jazz that nod to crowd pleasers like Union Station and Nickel Creek while adding worldly twists ripe for a fusion-schooled audience
The next Belleville Outfit album as yet resides in the imaginations of the band members. “I think the new one will be different from Wanderin’ in the fact that everybody has started to try their hand at writing,” Teter says. (The first disc is largely made up of his material.) “There’s been more collaboration between us.”
But when it comes to committing that sophomore effort to disc, reality rears its ugly head. “We’re not off the road until the first week in November and at that point we’re going to weigh our options,” Teter reveals.
And then, “We’re still not on a label yet. The second record will be released on a label but we’re not sure what one that will be.”
And finally, “We don’t have the money to do another record.”
Still, finances are only a small stumbling block. After all, this is the group that landed a MerleFest slot before they even had a band. They’re fueled by talent and contagious, youthful optimism—so much so that resources seem to fall into place.
If it seems this band has covered a lot of ground in a short time (we’re talking a year and a half), Teter attributes any success to “the help of a lot of good people around us, coupled with a willingness for us to give up what we’ve been doing and be on the road a lot and not have that reflect in any sort of financial gain.”
He continues, “It’s the willingness, for the first two years, to just eat it.”
Why not? They’re 21: The future seems a long way off. They have enthusiastic supporters and more gigs than they can cram onto their Web page. And as Teter tells it, “If you get six people together who are willing to do something, you might as well just go and do it all and not try to tiptoe around it.”
who: The Belleville Outfit
what: Cross-genre roots and swing
when: Opening for Seldom Scene at The Orange Peel on Saturday, Sept. 20 (8 p.m. $16 in advance, $18 at the door. www.theorangepeel.net) and playing Jack of the Wood on Sunday, Sept. 21 (9:30 p.m. $5. www.jackofthewood.com).