What happens when a bluegrass ensemble with national notoriety works on a new studio project but hopes to remain visible in the record buying marketplace pending its completion? Easy. It puts out a live album. Hence the 2014 issue of Town Mountain's exuberant concert recording, Live at the Isis, cut on the band's home turf of Asheville, N.C.
Now, what happens when said band sits on said studio record, now completed down to post production and cover art, with no confirmed release date? Why, it puts out a Grateful Dead album.
In one of the more novel stopgap moves by a band in any genre, Town Mountain is filling the time it takes to search out a record label home for its newest studio set by re-releasing a two-song EP disc on Nov. 13 called The Dead Session. It consists not of new original works showcasing the band's heavily rhythmic, traditionally minded bluegrass or even revisions of traditional Americana string-band tunes. It instead offers a pair of honky tonk-hearty renditions of two songs by one of Town Mountain's favorite non-bluegrass inspirations: the Grateful Dead.
"We always make jokes about it, but the two things everybody in the band can almost always agree on are Mexican food and the Grateful Dead," says Town Mountain guitarist and principal vocalist Robert Greer. "Everybody in our band is a really big fan of the Grateful Dead and has been for years. So it was kind of a no-brainer to go in and do this. I don't remember whose idea it was initially, but everybody jumped all over it like white on rice."
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The two songs making up The Dead Session are Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo, a Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter composition that dates back to the Dead's 1973 album Wake of the Flood, and Big River. The latter isn't a Dead song per se, but a Johnny Cash hit from 1958. Still, it became such a staple of Dead shows that it was largely viewed — along with other regularly covered classics including Not Fade Away, Turn On Your Love Light and Iko Iko — as part of the band's song catalog.
Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo proved a challenge because its extended refrain is so detached from the song's primary melody that it sounds like another tune altogether.
"I listened to Mississippi Half-Step for years before I realized it wasn't a medley. It was all the same tune. But I love the whole thing. It's probably my favorite Grateful Dead tune. It was a lot of fun to actually have a drummer in there, too. You need a drummer on that tune, and not just somebody slapping a train beat on a snare drum.
"Now, Big River was a Cash tune and a classic. Bob (Weir) sang that with the Dead. But we do it as just a stompy bluegrass thing, done very much in a Jimmy Martin style. Mississippi Half-Step follows pretty much the same rhythm patterns the Dead used. It's by no means a bluegrass rhythm or structure, though. I'm not sure that those songs were consciously decided for those reasons. We just liked both of them a lot."
Aside from appealing to the younger, jam-friendly audiences that constitute a healthy portion of Town Mountain's fan base, The Dead Session takes the sting out of the waiting game that the band is currently playing as it searches for a record label to issue its first full studio album since 2012's Leave the Bottle.
"The thing is in the can," Greer says. "It's done. It's mixed. It's mastered. The artwork is done. We're all so ready to share it with everybody, but we can't do that until we know exactly what we're going to do. We don't have a release date for it or anything. The label will decide that or, if we end up doing it ourselves, we'll decide. But it won't be out until 2016, probably in the spring.
"We're basically in limbo waiting on this thing to come out, so it could be a time of frustration. But I'm glad to see we're not experiencing that. I'm proud of each member keeping their head down and not worrying about what's going on around us. We're always going to keep doing our thing and coming back to areas we've spent time developing in, like Lexington, and seeing that work pay off.
"So everything is going well, but it will jump into another gear, of course, when the album comes out. There is a lot to be excited about in the future of Town Mountain, for sure."