You can’t escape the paradox sitting within the title of a new album by one of Central Kentucky’s preeminent bluegrass troupes.
The name of the band: NewTown.
The title of its album: “Old World.”
“The record label actually came up with the title ‘Old World,’” said NewTown fiddler, co-vocalist and co-founder Kati Penn. “They said the music had that old feel to it but was still modern at the same time.”
There is certainly no mistaking the vintage string sound and harmonies that permeate ‘Old World,” from the record’s light but wildly spirited acoustic foundation to a deep-seeded wistfulness that permeates the music’s thematic, vocal and melodic construction. So old, in fact, is the soul inhabiting the songs that some of the sound predates bluegrass and hops across the Atlantic for a touch of British folk inspiration.
“I think our sound is just naturally evolving as we play,” Penn said. “We don’t set out before we do a record and go, ‘OK, we want to look for this particular type of song.’ I’ve never done that.
“We have writers that we go to and ask for songs from. We use a lot of the same songwriters, and when we go to them, often they will ask, ‘Well, what kind of song are you looking for? And I don’t ever have an answer for that because I never have anything in mind specifically when I’m starting out on a project. But it just seems to evolve on its own. That ended up being the direction that this project went in after we started narrowing down the songs.”
One of the writers Penn and husband, banjoist and NewTown co-chieftain Junior Williams went to again was Tyler Childers. NewTown put four Childers songs on the band’s 2016 album, ‘Harlan Road,’ including the title tune. “Old World” boasts another three, including a parable called “Heart of Stone.” The lyric makes a very modern nod to “a hot mess busting out her sun dress,” but the melody surrenders to a folky elegance that harkens back to another century.
Curiously, Childers came to Penn’s attention thanks to NewTown alumnus CJ Cain, currently a mainstay member of the Wooks. Cain remains in close contact with Penn and Williams. Penn has even subbed on fiddle for a few Wooks dates while Williams’ vocals will be featured on the Wooks’ upcoming album.
“CJ is definitely the one who told me about Tyler Childers’ music,” Penn said. “He told me, ‘You need to come check him out. He’s got a ton of songs and he’s pretty much the only one recording them.’ The first time we heard him was at Willie’s and it was packed out to the max. It’s so funny to think of the comparison from then to now.”
Another major league bluegrass name that returned to “Old World” is Barry Bales. The longtime bassist for Alison Krauss and Union Station and, more recently, The Earls of Leicester, Bales served as producer for “Harlan Road,” a fit that suited Penn and Williams enough to invite him back to the helm for “Old World.”
“Since Barry produced the last project, he has a feel now for the material we like, the style that we play, how we want to portray the songs and how we want the listener to interpret the tunes,” Williams said. “So he was very easy to work with. He understands our goals and helps us navigate our way through all the stuff we cling to — ‘Does this work? Does this not work?’ You have an idea of what you want and he chimes in with his ideas.”
Mainstay members Mitchell Cannon on mandolin and Travis Anderson on bass round out the core NewTown lineup, although the band has been employing a rotating lineup of guitarists of late. Mountain Heart member Aaron Ramsey plays on much of “Old World” while Darrell Webb Band alum Jared Hensley will play with NewTown when it closes out the Southland Jamboree series at MoonDance Amphitheater on Monday.
“We all have a common goal,” Williams said. “That’s to travel and take this music to wherever we possibly can. We had a chance to play in France recently. The folks there loved the music. It doesn’t matter where you go. A good song is felt in the heart by anyone. It transcends boundaries. It certainly transcends language. If it’s a great song, anyone will take it to heart.”
If you go:
When: 7 p.m. Sept. 10
Where: Southland Jamboree at MoonDance Amphitheater, 1152 Monarch St.