The cover art to the new Town Mountain album Southern Crescent depicts a bridge leading to what one might assume is uncharted territory.
In the literal sense, that is very much the case. Though the rustic and rhythmically driven band’s Southern homestead is North Carolina, the bridge pictured actually sits in Louisiana, where the new record was cut. But the image, from Raleigh-turned-Brooklyn artist Sarah Bronstein, is a retouched makeover of a photo adorned with recycled art that makes the locale seems more outwardly fanciful and less geographically specific.
The true Southern spirit of the album, however, is revealed more specifically in the music. It took Town Mountain out of the Carolinas and into the Cypress House studios in Breaux Bridge, La., of Americana chieftain Dirk Powell, who produced the record. While the band’s traditionally rooted but raucously leaning music didn’t necessarily alter course as a result of the trip, the alliance with Powell — a multi-instrumentalist with strong family roots in Kentucky — proved a vital and logical next step for one of bluegrass music’s most increasingly prominent and popular acts.
“It was cool to make a bluegrass record with him because he’s not really headlong into the bluegrass world, but he is definitely headlong into the American music world,” Town Mountain guitarist and vocalist Robert Greer said. “When we walked into the studio, we were all meeting for the first time. I left there thinking, ‘That’s how I want to make every record from this point on.’ It was an awesome experience.
“Dirk had three microphones set up and said, ‘Okay. Let’s get cracking.’ We wound up setting two more mics up, but didn’t change much from the idea. We knew the music would be raw. We knew it would be stripped down, a rendering of what we truly sound like. Those were a lot of the reasons we chose Dirk and that was definitely part of the vision in wanting to work with him. He’s just a brilliant American musical mind.”
What that translates to on Southern Crescent is the crisp ensemble drive of I Miss the Night and Tick on a Dog as well as the spry fiddle sprees of Bobby Britt on the album-opening St. Augustine and the crisp, traditionally flavored Leroy’s Reel. (Mandolinist Phil Barker and banjoist Jesse Langlais complete the core of the band.)
But the ear-opener is Comin’ Back to You. A Greer composition, it runs at the same rugged, vintage-style pace as does much of the rest of Southern Crescent — that is, until a blast of barrelhouse piano rolls out of the tune in the home stretch.
“Comin’ Back to You is pretty similar in its vibe to a tune like Up the Ladder on the Leave the Bottle record,” Greer says of the 2012 release, Town Mountain’s last full length studio album. “I wrote both of those tunes. When we recorded Leave the Bottle, I really liked the boogie woogie feel it had. I suggested that it might be fun to have some piano on there, but that got voted down. With Southern Crescent, I put that idea on the front burner a couple of months before we went into the studio. I thought it would just be awesome to lay down some Jerry Lee Lewis style piano on this. So I guess there are some surprises in instrumentation, but I think it’s pretty organic in the way it sticks to our sound. We took some liberties, but by no means are we going to tour, night after night, with a piano player or anything like that. We’ll use one live when we get the right show or the right festival, but that’s about it.”
Also among Southern Crescent’s surprises in a revision of Whiskey With Tears. Originally cut a decade ago for Town Mountain’s now out-of-print debut album, the song underwent a honky tonk transformation worthy of its name and became a staple of the band’s live shows before making the cut for the new record.
“It’s just fun to play,” Greer said. “Someone was telling us you can’t put on a tune you’ve already done on a different record. I thought, ‘Well, you really can.’ We started coming out with all these examples of our heroes doing the very same thing. But in many cases, it was almost the same recording where they didn’t change the arrangement or anything.
“I feel we made that tune kind of new. It has that dance hall feel to it. When it all came down to it, we all agreed Whiskey With Tears was one of the songs we should put on the record. It’s one of those songs that lets the record kind of speak for itself.”
Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.