Town Mountain Southern Crescent LoHi Records
To suggest bluegrass music is at a railway crossing of style and substance at this particular moment in its 70-plus history is to not have been listening for the past several decades.
Bluegrass has been simmering and evolving since the beginning, and although some of the changes were not as apparent to many, whether because they were temporary, ill-advised, or not enthusiastically influential, [ed. note: or, just plain stupid] with the world smaller than ever all adjustments are now given the opportunity to be perceived by the wider listening population. There should be room for all spectrums of bluegrass, and Town Mountain is staking out its own little territory.
Town Mountain, a hard-driving Asheville, NC outfit, has produced their fifth album. Southern Crescent isn’t so much a departure from their previous albums, especially 2012’s excellent Leave the Bottle, as it is an intense continuation of their southern influences and hard-scrabble bluegrass sound. As raucous as this approach is, there is a place within the (sometimes) staid and constrained bluegrass community for exactly this type of music. It isn’t trying to be country, it sure isn’t leaning toward easy listening, NPR pap—it is bluegrass, just not the type favoured by Bill Monroe. For that matter, it isn’t of the flavour projected by Doyle Lawson, Rhonda Vincent, Lonesome River Band, or most of today’s mainstream headliners.
With Dirk Powell co-producing, it isn’t surprising that the group’s sound fully embraces Americana sounds, be they via the 70s (The Band, most obviously) and today—is there anyone else working this seam as effectively outside The SteelDrivers? While embroidering their approach with threads of different colours, Town Mountain doesn’t neglect the foundational fabric. When Town Mountain is on the stereo, there is no modern, progressive bluegrass band I would rather be listening to—the windows fly open, the sun streams in, and the cats are allowed to race about the place!
Opening with the fiddle theme “St. Augustine,” (Bobby Britt) a nod to the customs of the music when radio shows and live sets opened with similar touches, Southern Crescent is a thoroughly modern approach to the traditions of the music. Yes, Powell plays drums on five tracks (but, not in a way that distracts) and there is piano on a single cut. There aren’t an abundance of G-runs or other obvious ‘grass trappings. Rather than ‘high and lonesome,’ Town Mountain go low and aggressive.
What Southern Crescent reveals is an energetic, driving approach to acoustic music. The band members all take their breaks, and there are plenty of nice fills to augment their collective sound. Vocals, whether from Phil Barker (mandolin,) Jesse Langlais (banjo,) or Robert Greer (guitar,) are this side of gruff, unadorned by prettification: they sing like your cousin Jake, and Jake is a darned fine singer. When Greer starts in about “if you got the notion, I’m willing and able” in “House with No Windows,” you are ready to cut and run with him no matter where it leads.
With songs like “Wildbird” and “Long Time Comin’” preventing mid-album doldrums from settling in, the now four-piece (Jon Stickley has departed to front his own group, and bass is handled by Nick DiSebastian) ably demonstrate that they are unique. By the time they arrive at “Whiskey With Tears,” one is ready to recommend them to country radio not because they sound like they belong there, but because you wish radio sounded like Town Mountain.