When reached by phone in late September, Town Mountain mandolin player Phil Barker sounded a little worn down. He was recovering from a long night of picking and celebrating at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards in Raleigh, where his group had just won an IBMA Momentum Award for Band of the Year. Being honored among the genre’s best is indicative of the progress the Asheville-based band has made since forming back in 2005 out of casual picking parties.
That year an early incarnation of the group with founding members Robert Greer (who also picked up an IBMA Momentum Award for Vocalist of the Year) and banjo player Jesse Langlais decided to hit the road and ended up taking first place honors at the venerable Rockygrass Festival band competition in Colorado. It became apparent the group had chemistry that should be further explored, and in the years since it has developed a hard-driving straightforward style that adds original character to the high lonesome sound’s earliest intentions.
“We have the utmost respect for the first-generation bluegrass artists that created this music,” says Barker, who rounds out the band with Bobby Britt on fiddle and Jake Hopping on upright bass. “We’re trying to do our best with the ideas that we have to carry that spirit. We’re playing original music that we believe in, and bluegrass just happens to be our vehicle.”
The band has become a fixture on the national bluegrass circuit and gained the attention of respected predecessors. The band’s latest album, “Leave the Bottle,” was produced by Grammy-winning bassist Mike Bub (formerly of the Del McCoury Band), who described Town Mountain’s approach as “not reinventing the wheel, but taking the wheel in their hands and driving the music down both familiar roads and out to new territory.”
The group’s fourth album mines the depths of classic bluegrass themes—hard drinking and heartache—through nimble-fingered string work and Greer’s smooth vocal delivery in standouts like the title track and “You Weigh Heavy on My Heart.” The band also gives vintage treatment to a cover of the Wood Brothers’ “Loaded,” a nod to its more progressive influences.
“No matter what we call bluegrass, at the end of the day every band is unique in its own way,” says Barker, when reflecting on where his band fits in a genre that continues to be diversely interpreted by many young bands. “Despite what’s technically bluegrass, this is a music that a lot of people are passionate about and give different interpretations. More ideas open it up to new audiences, so the more the merrier.”
Labels aside, Town Mountain is focused on the road ahead. The band has a hearty slate of shows scheduled for the rest of this year into early next, including club dates in the Northeast, Colorado, and the Pacific Northwest. The band will also join fellow North Carolina pickers the Steep Canyon Rangers on the Mountain Song at Sea bluegrass cruise in February and make an appearance at Merlefest in the spring.
“We see a lot of the country through our 12-passenger van,” Barker adds. “There are pockets of bluegrass fans everywhere. Every night is a new adventure.”
The Lone Horseman
While Band of Horses takes a break from the road, front man Ben Bridwell is taking the chance to fly solo. This month Bridwell will tour the South’s top music towns as Birdsmell, a solo acoustic project that will find him doing stripped-down takes on Horses’ favorites and some new tunes. In a release Bridwell said, “I haven’t quite figured out exactly what I’ll be playing, or how I’ll be playing it, but I’m guessing it’ll be hilarious.”
The short tour will make North Carolina stops in Carrboro, Charlotte, and Asheville, before moving on to Knoxville and Chattanooga in Tennessee and closing down in Georgia with shows in Athens and Atlanta.