For many artists, record sales and hit singles spark an increase in popularity, which leads to hitting the road. For a band like Cornmeal, it's the opposite.
This psychedelic bluegrass outfit owes its popularity in both bluegrass and jam-band circles to its relentless touring.
Guitarist and vocalist Kris Nowak says Cornmeal has done more shows in more places this year than in any previous year with one goal in mind.
"We've really been making a push for the last few years to be a truly nationwide touring band and, ... it's just a big-ass country," Nowak said.
But before Cornmeal became a band playing in a city near you, it was a fun little side project formed in 2000 by a group of bluegrass players in Chicago. The weekly Wednesday night bluegrass jams gained an ever-increasing crowd of followers, prompting the side project to become the main priority.
Although bluegrass wouldn't be the first style to come to mind when you think of bands from the Windy City, Nowak said, playing bluegrass had everything he was looking for.
"I was blown away by the musicianship. It doesn't have to be heavy metal (for you) to be a fast player. You don't have to be in a jazz club to improvise," Nowak said. "It's just like this revelation to me that there was this whole scene of people that were hungry for this kind of music."
From that point on, Cornmeal went out to find those people. Nowak, banjoist Dave Burlingame, string bassist Chris Gangi, fiddler Allie Kral and drummer JP Nowak would hit markets in neighboring Wisconsin and Michigan, and expand from there. In the process, Cornmeal won over audiences with its mix of bluegrass, folk, Americana and psychedelia, which owes its roots to '60s bluegrass hybrids including Jerry Garcia's Old & in the Way and latter-day innovator Leftover Salmon.
Now, Cornmeal is regularly booked to play some of the biggest music festivals in the country, whether it's the Del McCoury Band's eponymous bluegrass event DelFest in Maryland, jam-band havens Wakarusa in Arkansas or 10,000 Lakes in Minnesota, or modern-day mega-fest Bonnaroo in Tennessee.
Of course, being road dogs hasn't given the band much time to hit the recording studio. The band has been together for nearly a decade, but it has only three studio albums to its name: 2002's In the Kitchen, 2003's Tales From Magic Stone Mountain and 2006's Feet First.
Nowak said the band's "light" body of work doesn't nearly reflect what the band has created over the years.
"The crazy thing is we've probably got enough material for a dozen albums," Nowak said. "Songs five, six or seven years ago we don't even play anymore."
Cornmeal went back into the studio to lay down tracks for an album, due in 2012. Many of the album's songs were recorded in a test studio session in June, but Nowak said frequent jaunts on the road led the band to give the songs a spin for fans and even more development later on.
"Those songs continue to grow. Every time we play a song on the road, we're open to little nuances that can be developed in each song, and it never fails to happen," Nowak said.
Nowak said the upcoming studio release from Cornmeal will be the most live-sounding and fully developed of the band's albums. But before it comes out, fans can grab Live in Chicago, IL Vol. 1; Volume 2 is due out later this year. Nowak said the release is, Cornmeal's first official live album, is a testament to its old stomping grounds and hometown fans.
"We're proud of where we're from, and it's a payback for all those people that supported us when there were four people in the room," Nowak said.
On Tuesday in Lexington, you won't have to settle for a live recording. Cornmeal will take the stage at Cosmic Charlie's; Dirtfoot also will perform. Nowak said that in previous years, Cornmeal got nervous playing shows in the Bluegrass State, where the band's musical specialty was developed. But now, he's just thankful that Cornmeal has a place in the genre to call its own.
"Any time you take one genre of music and it develops into something as unique as bluegrass music is, it's all about the community of people who are making it as well as the community of people coming to enjoy it," he said. "Now, it's global. You can go to Japan and they have bluegrass festivals. That's what makes me feel blessed to be a part of this bluegrass community."