Collin Krause of the Way Down Wanderers readily admits that bluegrass was his first love, not to mention the music he first made while in his early teens. However he’s also eager to insist that his band’s sound doesn’t resemble your daddy’s bluegrass one bit.
“I shy away from the bluegrass handle, although I certainly love bluegrass,” Krause said, speaking on the phone before the start of a three-week swing that will bring the group to Barley’s in Knoxville on Sunday. “Our music is a combination of all our instrumental influences, and that brings it a little bit beyond that realm.”
Indeed, it’s the diverse background of each of the individual members that makes the band’s music such an intriguing blend. Drummer and percussionist John Merikoski began his career in a jazz band, while bassist John Williams was weaned on classical.
Naturally then, there is the potential for some folks who identify themselves as traditionalists among the bluegrass community to frown on The Way Down Wanderers’ penchant for bending a few boundaries.
“I think about that a lot,” Krause said, addressing the question of how exactly the group tends to identify itself. “I love that tradition. I haven’t met anyone who seemed super upset about the spin we put on the music. We don’t go around telling people we’re a bluegrass band. If so, people would look at us and say ‘Oh no, that’s not a bluegrass band because they’ve got a drummer!’
“I like to say we’re an Americana band, because that has everything in it. It has bluegrass influences, folk influences and rock ’n’ roll too. That’s what I love about the Americana handle. It allows us to fit into this very broad category, one that enables us to explore it fully and pretty much do whatever we want.”
The band’s second studio album, “Illusions,” which was released earlier this year, finds it broadening its palette even further. It’s a creative potpourri that incorporates hints of rock, reggae, jazz and even a bit of hip hop into the band’s rootsy regimen. The consistency comes through in the form of the band’s effusive energy, which ranges from the back porch revelry of “Lonesome” and “Frozen Throughout” to the high harmonies of “Principles of Salt” and the perky pacing of “She’s Alright.”
“It was something that we’ve grown into over the years,” Krause said when asked about the band’s ability to integrate that spread of sound into their musical mix. “Austin (Krause-Thompson) and I started the band together in 2013, so we’ve always had a nice back-and-forth relationship. We connected with the other guys (Merikoski, Williams and banjo player Travis Kowalsky) not long after, and it just sort of clicked right away. For example, John had never played bluegrass before, but he had a really good ear for what fits the songs the best. Our intention is to highlight the lyrics and the songs, and that’s how we blend all those elements together.”
With two studio albums, a live album and a pair of early EPs released since 2016, the band continues to evolve. Krause said the group already is writing songs for the next album, which he speculates will be released next year.
“We definitely have gotten a lot tighter,” Krause said with a chuckle. “That’s one of the benefits of playing together for so many years. One of the things we’ve made strides on with the new albums is our vocals, which I think have gotten a lot stronger. We’re always working on our harmonies, and I think that’s something that’s definitely evolved. Sonically, we’re definitely taking a few more risks as well and evolving out of that early traditional sound. We’re constantly growing and doing whatever it takes to serve the song. I’ve always considered myself a songwriter first.”
Both Krause-Thompson and Krause are bonded by more than music however. They’ve known each other since they were 19 and 15, respectively, and a year ago, Krause-Thompson married Krause’s older sister, which brought their connection even closer.
“We’re always hanging out together, even when we’re not making music,” Krause said.
The band has spent ample time in these environs as well. The band has performed in Knoxville in the past, having played at Boyd’s Jig and Reel and on WDVX-FM’s “Blue Plate Special.” Krause’s ties run even deeper. As a youngster, he attended Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamp at Maryville College.
“My mom took me when I was a kid for three or four years in a row,” he recalled. “I started going when I was 12 until the time I was 15. I remember it being a beautiful campus.”