Published on February 27th, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann0
Asheville’s Town Mountain Blends the Styles for ‘Grass in the Hall’
The folks at Awendaw Green are thrilled to present a three-band concert at the Charleston Music Hall this week. Billed as “Grass in the Hall,” the show is set for Fri. March 1 and will feature sets by North Carolina’s Town Mountain, Kentucky-based ensemble Cumberland River, and Tennessee-based acoustic trio Barefoot Movement.
Based in the bustling music town of Asheville, headlining act Town Mountain returns to Charleston in support of its fourth album, Leave the Bottle, which was released in September on the Pinecastle Records label. Produced by Grammy award-winner Mike Bub (of the Del McCoury Band) and engineered by banjo wiz Scott Vestal (of the Sam Bush Band) in Nashville, the colorful collection of uptempo songs, waltzes, and acoustic rockers earned strongly favorable reviews from Americana music writers and critics.
The Town Mountain lineup features Robert Greer on vocals and guitar, Jesse Langlais on banjo and vocals, Phil Barker on mandolin and vocals, Bobby Britt on fiddle, and Jake Hopping on upright bass.
Metronome Charleston spoke with Langlais this week.
Metronome: How did you and your bandmates prepare for the work that went into making the new album, Leave the Bottle, last winter?
Jesse Langlais: Half of the album had already been in rotation in the set list for six months to a year, and the other half was pretty much brand-new and hadn’t been played on stage yet. That half was really off the cuff, which was very different for Town Mountain over the years. I really enjoyed doing it that way, and I liked the way those tunes came out on Leave the Bottle. It showed that we could make a good album without having to fine-tune the songs on stage.
Metronome: For you, as a banjoist, it must have been a thrill and possibly a frightening experience to work closely with engineer Scott Vestal in the studio.
Jesse Langlais: Well, first and foremost, Scott is one of the sweetest human beings, and he has no ego. He was so encouraging in the studio, and it was great to be around him. I was playing in front of one of heroes in there. Once I really got comfortable with him and I got over that hurdle, it was fine. Scott was completely honest. On the takes, he’d say, “Hey, you need to do this again” or “Yep, you nailed it — let’s move on to the next thing.”
Metronome: There’s obviously some great musical chemistry between the members of the band — particularly between fiddle, mandolin, and banjo. Do you and your bandmates ever venture away from the standard arrangements to improvise and play off of each other or do you normally have to stick to the plan?
Jesse Langlais: You know, there are certain expectations that bluegrass bands have for themselves, and there are expectations the audience have of the band. Many times, that involves playing the structure of the songs the same way, but there is plenty of room in the solos for each of us to stretch out. I will say that when we play at some place like the Pour House in Charleston, we feel a little more comfortable incorporating improvisation into the set.
Metronome: Bluegrass bands sometimes come off as a little stiff and formal on stage. How does Town Mountain keep things light and playful during a show?
Jesse Langlais: I think that our personalities are a big thing, and they have stayed pretty much the same. None of us are very serious guys at all. We’re a bunch of jokers, and we love having a good time. Offstage, that is apparent. Onstage, we usually get into show mode, but there’s a vibrant feeling that comes through. We are trying to hone in a professional, recognizable sound, too.
Metronome: It seems like a lot of modern bluegrass acts tend to play renditions of other acts, not just mountain music and folk, but of other artists from other genres, too.
Jesse Langlais: There are plenty of bluegrass bands who’ll play a rock cover tune in the bluegrass context, and that almost automatically makes it corny. But we’ve been able to find songs that aren’t written within the band and play them from the song’s value, like the Wood Brothers tune on the new album [“Loaded”] or “I’m on Fire” by Springsteen. It’s a constant challenge for us to figure out which cover songs work best for the band.
Metronome: What are some of the main lessons you’ve learned from recording and performing with the band over the last year?
Jesse Langlais: I’ve certainly learned from the experiences — forward progression and positive movement, you know? I learn something new every day. One thing I think about is the idea that you never quite get to the point where you really have it all nailed down. Another thing is that a band can never be rehearsed enough when going into a studio. You have to have that material down, and the band has to be in that groove before you go in. That will allow you to make the best music you can at that time.
Metronome: Do you think that Town Mountain’s music and personality reflects the core of the Asheville scene in some ways? Do you represent a movement or collective in some way?
Jesse Langlais: Well, I’ve lived in Asheville for 12 years [after relocating from Maine], and all of the guys in the band have lived there for a long time, so we really do feel like we’re part of the scene, helping it move forward. But there’s not really an ‘Asheville sound.’ You can say there’s a predominant folk/bluegrass thing going on, but there’s a punk scene and a jazz scene and some good indie bands, too. You can’t say that Town Mountain is even the Asheville bluegrass sound. Listen to the Steep Mountain Rangers and listen to Town Mountain; you’ll hear that there’s a big difference. A lot of other bluegrass in town is very traditional, too.
Metronome: Is it challenging to stand out in the crowd in Asheville, or is that something y’all don’t worry about very much?
Jesse Langlais: We never consciously think about it when we’re crafting our songs, but those issues do come up when we’re hanging out, thinking and talking about our sound, and considering how to make Town Mountain stand apart from other acoustic bands around here.
Metronome: What’s on the horizon for Town Mountain?
Jesse Langlais: We’re in this for the long haul, especially after the studio experience last year and how well the tours are going. We’re not burned out at all. Over the last couple of years, we’ve become a stronger, more cohesive band. We’ve really fine-tuned our sound. We have good material that was written within the band. We’re pushing ahead 150 percent, and we’re ready to make Town Mountain a big band on the scene.
Grass in the Hall starts at 7:30 on Fri. March 1 at the Charleston Music Hall. Tickets are available for $10 (advance) and $12 at the door.
The event is designed to kick off a series of upcoming Awendaw Green-sponsored bluegrass/folk events, the Sweet Grass Music Festival at Patriots Point on March 16 and the Charleston Bluegrass Festival at Sewee Outpost on April 5-6. Go to townmountain.net for more on the band. Visit awendawgreen.com and charlestonmusichall.com for more show info.
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