Bluegrass stalwart Town Mountain hones its sound on a new album

UNDENIABLE: “I grew up listening to country music and Southern rock,” say Town Mountain guitarist and lead singer Robert Greer. “But I think [bluegrass] is just undeniably cool music, especially when it's done the right way.” The local band releases its fifth studio album, Southern Crescent, on April 1. Photo by Sandlin Gaither

Southern Crescent, the fifth studio album from local bluegrass champions Town Mountain, doesn’t throw out the playbook that the quintet has successfully fashioned over the last decade or so. Theirs isn’t a style that shocks with its subversiveness or big concept aspirations — it’s a sturdy, dependable sound, using no-frills building blocks to tackle mostly original songs with zeal and verve. But it’s surprisingly and resiliently refreshing. Town Mountain plays an album release show at The Grey Eagle on Friday, April 1.

“Our band spent a little time figuring out what our sound was, and we figured that out three or four records ago,” says guitarist and lead singer Robert Greer. “I think there’s a constant movement today of bands trying to be as heady as they can be. That’s not something we’re ever going to try to do. We just rock a pretty steady downbeat in our band, and we’re fortunate to have guys like Phil Barker [mandolin] and Jesse Langlais [banjo] who write a lot of tunes.”

In the modern era of bluegrass and roots music, Town Mountain’s musicians (including Bobby Britt on fiddle and Nick DiSebastian on bass) avoid the highfalutin extremes of the Punch Brothers as much as the down-home ramshackle thrust of Old Crow Medicine Show. They get their licks in and sing tight harmonies, but they are not overly polished.  They let the song lead.

The bluegrass-centric approach wasn’t a foregone conclusion, however. Despite hailing from Appalachia now, most of the members of Town Mountain didn’t grow up here, nor were they particularly immersed in the genre. Greer says he, like his bandmates, caught the bluegrass bug when he was in his late teens and early 20s because of his Grateful Dead fandom.

“I grew up listening to country music and Southern rock,” Greer admits. “but I think [bluegrass] is just undeniably cool music, especially when it’s done the right way. There are a lot of bands around our age who came into bluegrass in really similar ways … maybe they went to a festival, maybe they heard a recording of Old and in the Way and hadn’t realized until then that Jerry Garcia was such a badass banjo player. Whatever it was, it’s a cool, energetic music and something about it is contagious.”

It’s likely that fresh-faced enthusiasm drives Town Mountain forward. On Southern Crescent, there’s little fuss and pretension, as each track has a lived-in and live feel, with the band members coalescing around the song in an almost preordained way. There is as much outlaw country and Western swing to these songs as bluegrass, despite the instrumentation. As traditional and even-keeled as Town Mountain is, no other band sounds quite the same.

Part of the reason behind this, according to Greer, was that the band decided to go to Louisiana to record with famed fiddle player and accordionist Dirk Powell. “It was a really cool, soulful experience,” Greer says of the sessions. “Dirk’s the man. Great musician, and he knows so much about all genres of music. He also loves it raw and energetic, not too glossy. We knew that’s who we wanted to work with.”

The other appeal of working with Powell was the chance to record in The Cypress House. Located south of Breaux Bridge, La., in a structure that dates to 1840, it has been converted into a high-end recording studio primarily for Powell’s clients. Some of the engineering work coming out of the studio has garnered Grammy nominations.

“His studio is nothing fancy, but it’s all made out of really old cypress wood, and it’s a cool-sounding room,” says Greer. “People seek out his studio because of that room.”

Southern Crescent will also benefit from a new tack on the business side of things. The LP is being released via LoHi Records, a new label out of Greensboro, backed by entrepreneur Jim Brooks, singer-songwriter veteran Todd Snider and Railroad Earth fiddle player Tim Carbone, among others. “It’s cool to be involved with a record label — [whose] touring musicians have been doing it for 20-plus years — having your back, making the calls,” Greer says.

WHO: Town Mountain with Billy Strings
WHERE: The Grey Eagle, 185 Clingman Ave., thegreyeagle.com
WHEN: Friday, April 1, at 9 p.m. $12 advance/$15 at the door

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About Kyle Petersen
Kyle is a Columbia, South Carolina-based freelance music writer and graduate student at the University of South Carolina. He's also in a sincere, long-term love affair with the city of Asheville. You can follow him on Twitter at @kpetersen.

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