Published on April 4th, 2013 | by Ballard Lesemann0
The Bushels Explore a Country-Rock Sound on New Album
When acoustic string quartet the Bushels started picking and harmonizing around the Lowcountry in 2008, some people simply tagged the group as a bluegrass act. Certainly, the twang tones and dense harmonies that mandolinist Mal Jones, banjo player Guilds Hollowell, guitarist Jim Algar, and bassist Whitt Algar cranked out drew plenty from traditional bluegrass and mountain music, but there was a heavy dose of vintage rock ‘n’ roll and old-school country in the mix as well.
In late March, the Bushels released an independently produced, self-titled collection of well-crafted originals. Compared to their two string-heavy previous discs — a self-titled EP from 2009 and a sophomore mini album titled Wood & Steel from 2011 — the new stuff rocks, jangles, and bounces with an aggressive “full band” sound. It’s not your typically timid coffeehouse folkie stuff, and it’s pretty far removed from the kitchy jamgrass side of the jam band scene, too.
“We definitely wanted some drums on the tunes this time around,” Mal Jones says of the new album. “One of the main reasons was to get some music on the radio. We’d been pushed back by commercial radio stations before because they said there were no drums on the songs. That was always their first comment. Including drums wasn’t something we did on an everyday basis, but we like having drums in the mix, and we like adding fiddle, pedal steel, piano, and other elements when we can.”
Jones and his bandmates invited local drummer Jack Friel to sit in on the sessions last fall at Mantis Studios. The band started working on the basic tracks in October 2012 with studio owner/engineer Mitch Webb presided over the recordings.
“The plan was to bang it out and have it ready by Christmas, but we kept finding more things we wanted to do with it,” Jones says. “There’s a lot more going on with these songs than anything we’ve done before — especially with the addition of drums and pedal steel.”
Veteran pedal steel player Charlie Thompson, a longtime musician in the Charleston scene who most recently collaborated with Mac Leaphart and members of Guild Ridden Troubadour, added plenty of rhythmic and melodic flourishes to many of the tracks on the new disc.
“There were specific songs that we picked for pedal steel,” Jones says. “I know for sure that I wanted pedal steel on two of my songs. When we brought Charlie into the studio with his signature sound, we just thought, ‘Holy cow, this sounds great.'”
Thompson’s lively pedal steel work colors most of the verses and chorus of the upbeat-but-melancholic “Down to the Wire” and the slow-rockin’ “Better Way.” Album opener “Every Time” is a waltzy, shuffling anthem not far from the emotive crooning of John Mayer or John Mellencamp. Jones’ mandolin lines lead the way on the 2/4 stomper “Cherokee Girl” alongside copious steel, fiddle, and banjo. The swingin’ tune “Some Day” might be the most romantic and light-hearted of the bunch. The strummy, fast-paced “Madeline” is perhaps the most bluegrass-tinged song here, while the all-acoustic instrumental “Heading Home” — the only song in the set without drums — closes the album on a beautiful note (and chord).
Each songwriter in the Bushels normally sings his own tunes in the band, and his bandmates add harmonies here and there. On the new collection, they reached out to female gospel vocalist Ivory Collins and rock/Americana songwriter Reid Stone (of Guilt Ridden Troubadour) to expand the tones and textures of the harmonies. Fiddler Joe Marlow pitched in a several songs, too.
“There was a discussion about how to approach the extra instruments and harmonies and how they’d drive and accent the main parts of the tunes,” Jones says of the band’s prep work for he session. “We talked with Jack a lot about how drummers with singer-songwriters play around the songs without dominating them too much. Alison Krauss’ and Lyle Lovett’s recordings came up, as did some of the old Son Volt records where the drummer would be there for half the song and then he wouldn’t be there for the other half.”
“Mitch knew how to work his studio’s strongest points really, really well — even when the sessions are scattered through the fall and winter,” Jones adds. “I think the quality of the final mix is a great testament to his skills. Some people who’ve heard it have commented that it doesn’t sound like a record that came out of from a local studio. Sonically, it comes across really well.”
The album is available on iTunes and will be for sale at Monster Music and at the band’s shows next week and through the spring and summer.
According to Jones, the eponymous title of the new collection came about simply because they couldn’t come up with a clever title otherwise. Using the band name works appropriately, though. It signifies a newly invigorated sense of direction for the band — a clearly defined style more firmly rooted in the traditional country side of rock and popular American music.
“The last thing we want to do is sound throwback-ish,” Jones says. “We want the music to sound as new as it can be while we still borrow from some traditional styles. If the songs are super-strong and come across really well, we’re happy.”
The Bushels will perform at the Charleston Bluegrass Festival at Sewee Outpost on Sat. April 6 at 2 p.m. The Bushels will open for N.Y. band Yarn at the Alley (on Columbus St.) at 8:30 p.m. on Sat. April 13 as part of the inaugural DIG South Festival.
Visit thebushels.com for more.
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