Published on June 5th, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann0
Black Iron Gathering Brings a Hard Punch to ‘Grass in the Hall’
Local music collective Awendaw Green’s 2013 bluegrass and folk concert series Grass in the Hall returns to the Charleston Music Hall on Fri. June 7 with three solid Carolina acts — Columbia-based folk/Celtic quintet Black Iron Gathering, Charleston based string quartet the Bushels, and Siler City, N.C.’s based combo Nu-Blu.
The series started up on March 1 with a three-band bill featuring North Carolina’s Town Mountain, Kentucky-based ensemble Cumberland River, and Tennessee-based acoustic trio Barefoot Movement.
Grass in the Hall with continue as a monthly series through the summer and into the fall. Proceeds from the concert will benefit the Lowcountry Biodiversity Foundation which promotes education, awareness, and conservation of the Lowcountry’s biological and ecological resources.
Black Iron Gathering formed in 2011 when childhood friends Billy Ray and Charles Funk started collaborating on song ideas as an acoustic guitar duo. Ray also played mandolin and kazoo. By the end of the year, they’d enlisted banjo player Charlie McLindin, drummer Justin Sims, and bassist Bill Stevens. The current lineup features bassist Chris Paget and drummer Josh Latham.
The band recorded a debut EP in 2011 and followed it in 2012 with a full-length self-produced collection titled The Brown Album. Both discs demonstrated the band’s admiration for Celtic rock, modern and traditional folk — all with a few hints of vintage Anglo punk.
This week, Black Iron Gathering frontman Billy Ray spoke with Metronome Charleston about their latest musical endeavors and their plans for 2013.
Metronome Charleston: Were there any acoustic, folk, Celtic, bluegrass, or rock-oriented groups in the Columbia or Carolina scene that encouraged or influenced Black Iron Gathering in the early days?
Billy Ray: As far as the early days of the band, I really enjoyed watching Woodwork Roadshow. Harris Gardner on the mandolin is always a great thing to see live. We are all pretty much big listeners and supporters of the Avett Brothers, Larry Keel, and Carolina Chocolate Drops.
Metronome Charleston: How have things settled as far as the latest lineup goes?
Billy Ray: I’m loving the band right now as a five piece. We have two guitars, banjo, bass and a drummer. Everyone is on vocals. This band at one time was seven people, and to be honest, the shows were great. But when you go back and listen to things, it just sounded like everything was crammed together.
Metronome Charleston: Describe how Black Iron Gathering writes and arranges original material — is it collaborative from start to finish, or do key songwriters bring finished songs to the band?
Billy Ray: Most of our songs start out by using cell phones, believe it or not. I love the voice recorder on my phone, so whenever I have a melody in my head, I’ll hum it out then go back and listen to everything that I’ve ever done and see what works with what when lyrics comes to mind. But usually before a whole song is written, all of us gather to finish it together before it’s played in its full strength. I’ve gotten together with Charles and Charlie to cowrite some songs that they’ve written. Some get done fast and some end up taking more time than expected due to us changing the flow of things.
Metronome Charleston: You’ve defined the band’s current sound as “bluegrass/punk/party-grass or stomp-grass.” That’s a lot of grass. How has the band’s overall sound changed the most since its beginnings?
Billy Ray: Yes, it’s a lot of grass, but it’s hardly traditional blue. We started out with a minimal pulse, playing some folk tunes and love songs, which we still do very often. Over time, the band has changed into what everyone’s roots are. Josh and I are totally the driving force when it comes to the punk side of things. Charles is a great writer who has a really good Southern swing to his style. We never try and sound country, but what Charles delivers — as far as soloing or full songs — has a power-anthem style of writing that allows us to feed off each others’ musical interest in a massive way. Charlie McLinden is a great writer and contributes to everyone’s interest because he’s just that good. He’s the hippie in the band, and he’s proud of it but sometimes, listening to the way he plays makes me think he’s a punk at heart!
Metronome Charleston: Describe a typical show set list. What’s the mix of originals and covers like these days?
Billy Ray: As far as covers, we might venture into three or four per show, depending on how long the set time is. The formation of our set list for a show could be best described as a roller-coaster ride. We always slam in pretty energetically, die down a little, and then come back with a hard punch at the end.
Metronome Charleston: Do you fit in with an Americana, folk, or rock side of Columbia’s current band scene at all?
Billy Ray: When it comes to fitting into a genre locally, that’s an extremely hard question to answer. We’ve played rock shows, Americana, folk, punk, bluegrass, and jam shows. I think we fit into whatever the listener can classify us as in the scene. The banjo seems to make people believe that we’re just a bluegrass band, but we’re far from it. We’ve been told we are an interesting blend of genres.
Metronome Charleston: What’s your main artistic goal for the 2013?
Billy Ray: Our goal is to keep a strong brotherhood within the members of the band. We hope to encounter situations in all of our lives, together and separately, that allow us to write songs that impact and encourage our listeners. We plan on making another record in August. We’re finding ourselves to be a blessed band, due to the fact that our gigs keep getting better and better, with festivals, new venues, and crowd size. We hope to keep growing and making the best music we can for our TBIGiers out there.
Metronome Charleston: What can the audience in Charleston expect from you and the band at the Grass in the Hall show this weekend?
Billy Ray: We are loud, funny, and very energetic. Just expect power-anthem music with a hard stomping feel that might leave a ring in your ear. We’re no sit-down show, that’s for sure.
Metronome Charleston: Mando-wise, Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” or R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion?”
Billy Ray: I have two brothers. One’s a fan of R.E.M. and hates Rod Stewart. The other loves Rod Stewart and hates R.E.M. I’m in-between on that because I’m not a fan of either. Let’s just have a beer while we listen to some old [legendary mandolinist] David Grisman albums.
Grass in the Hall with Black Iron Gathering, the Bushels, and Nu-Blu takes place at the Charleston Music Hall on Fri. June 7. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are available for $15 in advance and $20 at the door. See facebook.com/theblackirongathering, and check out Visit awendawgreen.com and charlestonmusichall.com for more.
Top photo by Susan Clayton.
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