Eleanor Underhill, Town Mountain, Smoky Mountain Sirens and GrudaTree release new albums

STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: Clockwise from top left, Eleanor Underhill, Town Mountain, The Smoky Mountain Sirens and GrudaTree keep local listeners entertained as summer winds down. Underhill photo by Silas Durocher; Town Mountain photo by Emma Delevante; Sirens photo by Heather Burditt; GrudaTree photo by Michael Shanks

Eleanor Underhill has long wanted to create an album where listeners could be sitting at the beach or their favorite chill spot, press “Play” on their listening device and experience good musical vibes.

The Asheville-based singer/songwriter recently achieved that goal with her new LP, Got It Covered, a collection of her takes on works by The Beatles, Nina Simone, Radiohead, Gladys Knight and other recording artists who’ve brought Underhill joy throughout her life.

“Even though some of the songs can get more emotional and intense, I have that degree of separation from them because I didn’t write them, so they don’t feel quite as potent,” she says. “These songs have entered the realm of nostalgia, so it’s just kind of a fun listen as opposed to going into the annals of dark, emotional stuff that I sometimes deal with in my original material.”

For years, the artist notes, fans have encouraged her to record some of the 50-plus covers she regularly mixes in with her live sets of original songs. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Underhill took the opportunity to make that wish come true at her home studio, connecting herself to musical history in the process.

“You’re already starting with a structure that succeeds,” Underhill says of covering songs. “You already know someone has put this verse, chorus, bridge and chord progression together and it has grabbed attention for years.”

From there, Underhill put her own spin on the material so that — with the exception of her near-complete overhaul of Rod Stewart’s “The Motown Song” — each tune’s beloved melody is recognizable but embellished with distinct instrumentation and other flourishes. Aiding those soundscapes was the Abbey Road One library, which allowed Underhill to unleash huge orchestral samples through her synthesizer and program more elaborate string sounds on her covers.

“I think [this record has] put my music production skills at the forefront, since it takes the writing out of the equation,” she says. “I’m walking that balance between growing as a producer, having fun, following the muse and doing what’s exciting for me — and giving something to my fans who are more connected with the acoustic folk/rock side of what I do.”

Helping Underhill hit those marks are local collaborators Zack Page (bass), Silas Durocher (guitars), Jacob Rodriguez (saxophones), Will Younts (drums) and her mother, Jane Underhill, who plays autoharp on “Eleanor Rigby.” Though she had fun “bossing” her mom around, the artist says she was inspired by the experience to start planning her next project: a mother/daughter Christmas album.

“[My mom] has a great voice, but she keeps talking about how she’s losing her ability to sing as she gets older. So I really want to capture that family dynamic and I think it would just be a really cool bonding experience,” Underhill says. “I wasn’t raised in a religious family, but my mom loved to sing Christmas carols, and I learned all of them. They have a special place in my heart but also in my music education. You hear these melodies for so long and they become a part of how you think about music.”

To learn more, visit avl.mx/bz6.

Lyrical excavators

Even for an established, beloved band like Town Mountain, the pandemic has been a challenge. The Asheville-based alt-country/Americana ensemble has steadily grown its fan base and nationwide acclaim over the past 15 years. But amid COVID-19 shutdowns, such progress came to a sudden halt, pulling the proverbial rug from under the band’s longtime mandolinist/vocalist Phil Barker.

Yet, despite the jarring situation, Barker says he used the time to dig deeper into his craft.

“I got to refocus on songwriting a little more and put a little more time into that, which was nice,” he explains. “The lack of a paycheck was not as nice. … It was a good time to reflect — but I don’t know if I could have sat back much longer, trying to be a musician. It was pretty tough.”

Barker’s supercharged connection to lyrics is evident throughout Town Mountain’s forthcoming album, Lines in the Levee, slated for an Oct. 7 release. He wrote seven of the 11 tracks, and delved deeply into the strange social environment, his standing in it and icons that passed away early in the global health crisis.

“When we lost John Prine [in April 2020], that had a huge impact on me. He was a musical hero of mine,” Barker says. “I really wanted to get into his songwriting style, and I wrote a song called ‘Daydream Quarantina,’ which is on the record — my way of a small tribute to him and the musical force that he was and continues to be.”

The track is a highlight of Lines in the Levee, largely thanks to a section where Barker reflects on the difficulty to “write about something ain’t no one else done” and how to “find you a diamond, you gotta stay in the dirt.” He’s not writing from a character’s point of view, either.

“That is from the heart right there,” Barker says. “Continually, I push myself as a songwriter and, I don’t know what the experience is like for other songwriters, but it gets harder for me. You keep trying to push yourself and not say the same thing, but it’s hard to find. How deep is the well? You gotta keep digging deeper to find something new and keep working at it. And that can be a real challenge.”

Personally relevant as those lyrics may be, it helps that they likewise resonate with the rest of Town Mountain. When Barker brings his songs to his bandmates, bassist Zach Smith is one who definitely takes notice.

“Anything that comes out of Phil’s mouth — I’m like, ‘Yeah, man!’” he says. “I was a fan of the band long before I joined, too, so that probably has something to do with it, but in the studio, it felt really magical at times, for sure.”

To learn more, visit avl.mx/bz9.

Power trio

Like many bands, The Smoky Mountain Sirens got their start by performing cover songs. But it didn’t take long for the trio to realize familiar crowd-pleasers would never sustain their creative itch.

“We ended up deciding that just was not the right path for us, so we started writing,” says Rose Vermillion, the group’s bassist and co-vocalist.

Aimee Jacob Oliver, the band’s guitarist and fellow vocalist, got things started with a number of songs inspired by conversations she and her fellow bandmates had about sexist remarks and behaviors they’d been subjected to as women in a male-dominant music industry.

Vermillion then began working on her own lyrics, with drummer Eliza Hill offering occasional lines. Considering the rage all three were feeling, it made sense to channel their emotions through punk rock.

“Aimee comes from a very heavy punk background, and I come from more of a crowd-pleasing background,” Vermillion says. “So anytime I’d write a song, I’d give it to her before introducing it as a collective, and she’d punk it up. And then she’d send me a song she wrote — which is heavy, heavy stuff — and I’d put in hooks and melodies and harmonies. And all of our songs end up meeting in the middle.”

Local engineer Matt Langston soon took notice and invited the Sirens to his Rock Candy Recordings studio for a free session to see how they all worked together. The band agreed, tracked “Solid 8” and listened back.

“After we heard how that one turned out, we were like, ‘You need to take all our money. Let’s keep this ball rolling,’” Vermillion says.

The resulting 10-track album, also dubbed Solid 8, captures the band’s energy in a polished and produced manner that Hill feels nicely complements the Sirens’ raw, raging live shows. But even with the blunt, honest subject matter of their songs, much of it aimed at toxic masculinity, the drummer emphasizes that the group’s aims don’t involve declaring war on the other sex — a misinterpretation that she and Vermillion note is sadly common.

“It’s not about excluding men or pushing men to the side or putting men down. It’s about everybody working together,” Hill says. “The root of feminism is equality, and excluding men from the bigger picture just because they’re men and not because of what they can add to the situation isn’t necessarily feminism. That’s just being exclusionary and it’s not constructive.”

To learn more, visit avl.mx/bz8.

Branching out

In the words of Walt Whitman, 3 Different States, the debut album from Asheville-based psychedelic soul ensemble GrudaTree, “contain[s] multitudes.”

The complexity is evident on many fronts, beginning with the various inspirations behind the LP’s title. Kris Gruda, the band’s guitarist and vocalist, explains it was first a reference to the three states — Florida, Pennsylvania and North Carolina — where he lived over the past decade, while gradually working on the record alone, before forming his current six-piece band.

“These songs came with me when I moved to WNC. They’ve been traveling around with me,” he says. “That was just me going through my life and they come out — because I’m ‘an occasional songwriter,’ is what I tell people. I’m an improviser first and foremost, so when the songs come out, you know it.”

The name of the album also brings to mind the three states of matter. And listening to the layered instrumentation, it’s natural to picture sonic solids, liquids and gases intertwining and, through the numerous standout solos, existing on their own. 

“I’ve played some of these songs in groups that I’ve been in over the years, but I definitely will say that these are my favorite and the most fully realized versions,” Gruda says.

The songwriter points to JP Furnas of Asheville mainstay Empire Strikes Brass as a major reason why the 3 Different States editions stand out from earlier versions of the same tracks. After some group brainstorming with bandmates Patrick Allison (trumpet), Justice Mann (trombone) and Linda Shew Wolf (alto saxophone), Gruda met with Furnas multiple times and leaned on his collaborator’s talent with charting horn parts. GrudaTree then recorded live in the studio as a five-piece — Wolf later overdubbed her parts — under the direction of the band’s drummer, Ted Marks, who proved essential in the frontman realizing his vision.

“I’m not an engineer, but I have sonic ideas and musical ideas. So I’m sitting there with [Ted] and will say, ‘I want to try to achieve this effect,’ or something. And then he’s a guy that will make it happen,” Gruda says. “Ted’s ready to tackle it, whatever you’re trying to achieve. It was a true gift to have the drummer also be the engineer that works the way he does.”

At GrudaTree’s core, however, is its power trio roots — pun largely intended. Though Gruda notes that the band moniker has proved increasingly true over time as the group has organically grown and evolved, he, bassist Michelangelo Amore and Marks love showcasing their triangular chemistry during a breakout section of every full-band show. And while 3 Different States just came out, the trio has already tracked several instrumental cuts that the players will soon review and mix, and likely release as an EP.

“I’m a huge fan of instrumental music and improvised music,” Gruda says. “Sometimes songs actually get in the way of that kind of stuff.”

To learn more, visit avl.mx/bz5.


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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