By now, Town Mountain has affirmed its place with Lexington audiences as an official bluegrass envoy. Few string music ensembles from outside of Kentucky have become such performance regulars and, as a result, such a massive audience favorite as this aggressively rhythmic (or, as Town Mountain has long tagged itself, “hard driving”) outfit from the bluegrass-fertile terrain of Asheville, N.C.
The relationship continues this weekend with a return show tonight at Cosmic Charlie’s. Louisville-area fans should also note the band will perform at Zanzabar, 2100 S. Preston on Saturday (9 p.m., $12, $15).
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The local appeal of Town Mountain — guitarist and vocalist Robert Greer, banjo player Jesse Langlais, mandolinist Phil Barker, fiddler Bobby Britt and bassist Zach Smith — began to mount following the release of its 2012 album “Leave the Bottle,” a record that embraced a rustic sensibility borrowed from pre-bluegrass and even vintage rock ’n’ roll, even though the record’s instrumental smarts were rooted in string band tradition.
Many notable Lexington performances followed beginning with gigs at the first Willie’s Locally Known location on North Broadway. During the summer of 2014, Town Mountain teamed with the Lonesome River Band for a packed-like-sardines show at the now defunct Natasha’s Bistro. Fast forward to the fall of 2015 and Town Mountain was performing in the heart of downtown Lexington (specifically, the Robert F. Stephens Courthouse Plaza) for a late October double bill with the Travelin’ McCourys as part of the Breeders’ Cup Festival.
But the most obvious reflection of Town Mountain’s favorability with Lexington audiences has come from now yearly appearances at the Festival of the Bluegrass. In a generational changing of the guard of sorts, headlining status at the four day event, a position long held by the Seldom Scene, was passed to Town Mountain in 2015. The band has taken advantage of that status to conclude its evening sets at the festival with a jam session that regularly encompasses players from other festival acts — most notably, the Lexington-bred Wooks.
Town Mountain, Seldom Scene and The Wooks have all been confirmed to return to the 2018 Festival of the Bluegrass, June 7 to 10 at the Kentucky Horse Park campground.
But just as Town Mountain’s popularity has bloomed in recent years, so has the stylistic breadth of its sound. In the fall of 2014, the band released the single-disc concert recording, “Live at the Isis.” Recorded on home turf in Asheville, the record was a lively and efficient summary of the band’s performance highlights, from Greer’s Jerry Lee Lewis-level vocal charge on “Up the Ladder” to Barker’s George Jones-esque gusto (a la “White Lightning”) on “Lawdog” to the entire ensemble’s speed and agility during the instrumental “Tarheel Boys.”
Then, in a seemingly abrupt change of course, Town Mountain released a two-song EP of Grateful Dead songs aptly titled “The Dead Session” in 2015. Their picks — “Big River” (a 1958 Johnny Cash hit, but a staple of the Dead’s concert repertoire for decades) and the Jerry Garcia/Robert Hunter composition “Mississippi Half-Step Uptown Toodleoo” — sound right at home alongside the homespun string grooves of Town Mountain’s original songs.
A full-length follow-up album to “Leave the Bottle” finally surfaced in April 2016. Titled “Southern Crescent” and cut in Louisiana with celebrated Americana instrumentalist and producer Dirk Powell, the record widened the Town Mountain sound even more, especially on the Celtic-favored instrumental joyride “Leroy’s Reel” and Greer’s “Comin’ Back to You,” where an unexpected boogie woogie feel is underscored by barrelhouse piano.
Work on a newer album is underway, which means more surprises will likely be rolling our way once the Mountain boys return to town Friday night.