The Last Bison’s Free Range Folk

In “Switzerland,” the lead single from The Last Bison’s new Inheritance EP, front man and main songwriter Ben Hardesty sings, “We tried to sleep up in the banks of snow, but soon discovered it was far too cold. So we then retreated into town, to find a place where there was level ground.”

It sounds like part of a tale ripped from an epic war tome, but it’s more likely an experience from a post-high school backpacking trip abroad. Still, the aesthetic is intentional. Hardesty grew up in Chesapeake, Va., a rural town just inland from the coast, where he was homeschooled and given the freedom to study what really interested him. He cites a six-month obsession with the Civil War as particularly influential in his vivid songs.

“I had the opportunity to study the things I really cared about,” he says. “I’ve always had a love for that era, and that informs my songwriting. That makes it come off as representative of a time gone by.”

Although Hardesty grew up digging the rootsy sounds of Allison Krauss and John Prine, a year living in the UK after high school also turned him on to classical music. Now the influences collide in his seven-piece band’s self-described mountaintop chamber music. It’s a sound where perky banjo plucks and mandolin fills are underscored by the sweet melancholy of patient cello runs and deep marching percussion. Hardesty leads the troops, donning a general’s beard, with emotional vocals that fluctuate between husky howls and high-pitched falsetto.

Still in his early 20s, Hardesty has been writing songs since his homeschooling days, often inspired by the marsh woodlands of the Great Dismal Swamp near his home and trips to nearby colonial Williamsburg. When he returned to Virginia from England he decided to get serious about his craft and started working out songs with his father and sister, both members of The Last Bison, at home in their living room. They added longtime friend Andrew Benfante on a 75-year-old pump organ and his brother Jay on percussion. The group is rounded out by classically trained string players Teresa Totheroh on violin and Amos Housworth on cello.

With seven members, the band’s sound comes to life with a theatrical vibrancy. While Hardesty sings and pounds away at his acoustic guitar, the rest of the group creates pastoral aural journeys with swirling strings and colossal bursts of emotion—often equally appropriate for a rock club or a symphony hall.

“I bring full songs to the band, like a canvas to paint on,” Hardesty adds. “Then we work through the structure and embellish a song together.”

Though based in Chesapeake, the band built a reputation through coffee shop gigs and house shows in nearby Norfolk. After a local band showcase at The Norva, a large theater that houses national acts, the venue’s booking agent sent the band’s independently released first album, Quill, to a DJ at a local alternative rock station. The station put one of the band’s tunes in rotation, and soon, record label reps took notice. The band inked a deal with Universal Republic and released the EP last fall with a full-length album to follow in March. The band’s sound has earned comparisons to predecessors in the neo-folk explosion like Mumford and Sons and the Decemberists. The group has also already landed some choice gigs in the Americana world, including an opening slot for the Avett Brothers at an amphitheater near their hometown and a tour with Langhorne Slim. While Hardesty says the comparisons are flattering, he stresses his band isn’t trying to imitate what’s currently popular.

“There’s a rising trend in folk music,” he says. “The key is to be authentic and make the music that comes from you. We’re not trying to contrive anything.”  •

Jim James Goes Solo

My Morning Jacket front man Jim James will release a debut solo album on February 5. While James previously released a short EP of George Harrison covers under the name Yim Yames, this will mark his first proper full length under his own name. Regions of Light and Sound of God was both produced and engineered by James, who also handled all instruments on the album’s nine tracks. According to a release, sounds will range from old-school R&B to island folk, while a preview track, “Know Til Now” has a futuristic soul groove with similarities to Jacket’s work on Z and Evil Urges. No word yet on whether a supporting tour will follow.