Young pickers in Town Mountain let traditional bluegrass take them places
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It’s been a long and occasionally arduous climb, but the view from atop Town Mountain is starting to look mighty fine indeed.
The Asheville, N.C.-based traditional bluegrass band will release the album “Leave the Bottle” on Sept. 4, and it’s already getting more exposure than the group’s 2011 record, “Smooth Operator,” did.
“We’ve never been able to get on XM Sirius (satellite radio) until ‘Leave the Bottle,’ but now it’s in their rotation,” banjo player/vocalist Jesse Langlais told The Daily Times this week. “These guys get so much music that they probably play only 5 percent of what they get, but ‘Leave the Bottle’ has been getting some serious XM play. We tried like the dickens to get our last album on there, and we never could. There’s just something about this one. The quality of the recording is better, the playing is better and the singing is better.”
The members of Town Mountain — Langlais, mandolin player/vocalist Phil Barker, lead vocalist/guitarist Robert Greer, fiddler bobby Britt and bassist/guitarist/vocalist Jon Stickley — came together in 2005 in Asheville, not an easy community in which to get a roots music band off the ground. But they were inspired, Langlais said, by their love of bluegrass.
“It’s very exciting to play and watch,” Langlais said. “It’s fast, it’s virtuosic at times, and it’s authentic. It’s one of the genres direction from Appalachia, played by blue-collar, hard-working folks. It’s real — five people with five acoustic instruments. It’s hard to find a music that’s truer than bluegrass in the sense that it’s just the person and their instrument.”
Listening to their contemporaries, both in Western North Carolina and throughout the bluegrass world, the band members decided to work toward a distinctive sound in order to distinguish themselves. That’s no easy feat given the common elements involved in bluegrass, but it wasn’t long before Town Mountain was performing all over Asheville and hitting the road for venues around the Southeast.
“I think we needed to pave a path of our own,” Langlais said. “Not to take away from contemporary bluegrass of today, but it’s very homogenized. It all kind of sounds the same to us — you turn the radio on and from one bluegrass song to the next, it could be the same people.
“Songwriting is important to us, and that kind of helps pave our own path. Also, keeping a band together was a big part of it. That’s not to say we haven’t had personnel changes, but we’ve had minimal changes and have been able to keep the core unit together for most of the length of the band’s career. We’re also really good friends, and I think that comes across in the way we play and our stage presence.”
The guys have earned a number of fans in the industry, including bass player Mike Bub, formerly with the Del McCoury Band, who produced both of Town Mountain’s most recent releases. They’ve made in-roads into East Tennessee, and they’ll perform at Barley’s Taproom in Knoxville’s Old City next week, right after they return from a series of workshops and festivals in Northern Canada.
They’re all accolades, according to Langlais, and sometimes it’s hard to keep track of them all. That’s not because Town Mountain takes them for granted; it’s just that the music often eclipses milestones that might be considered monumental by other bands.
“It’s really hard to see it from a day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year thing,” he said. “I think that goes ahead and solidifies the idea of music being authentic. We’re not really out there to ‘make’ it big. We want to be successful, and we want people to know who Town Mountain is, and we want to play bigger festivals and venues every year. But at the same time, when you’re having a great time doing it, you can overlook some of those things.”