Music News & Reviews

Name-dropping starts a new era for Newtown

Newtown — Jr Williams, left, Kati Penn-Williams, C.J. Cain, Clint Hurd and Terry Poirier — is having a party Friday at Natasha's to mark the release of its first album on a national label.
Newtown — Jr Williams, left, Kati Penn-Williams, C.J. Cain, Clint Hurd and Terry Poirier — is having a party Friday at Natasha's to mark the release of its first album on a national label.

You might think Kati Penn-Williams is doing this music career thing in reverse.

The common trajectory for people with a résumé of band and solo work is you get in a band and then, if you stand out from the ensemble, you pursue the solo career. But after years as a Lexington-area bluegrass fiddle phenom, Penn-Williams is comfortably ensconced in a band, Newtown, by choice.

The group came out of a natural evolution of her own group, the Kati Penn Band, that formed in the early 2000s.

"There were so many more lead s ingers coming in, and it wasn't just me that I felt needed to be showcased," Penn-Williams says. "I felt like everyone brought a certain amount of something that needed to be out front, so that's when we kind of decided to start changing."

They first became Kati Penn and Newtown, and then "we just dropped my name," she says.

"We voted her out," Penn-Williams' husband, vocalist and banjo player Jr Williams, says, laughing.

But seriously, he adds, "that's the odd thing, that she would say, 'Let's just drop my name and be Newtown,' because she had been in the forefront."

It has taken some getting used to for fans and venues, as Penn-Williams, who handles the group's booking, frequently has to call and correct venues that list the performances by one of the previous names under which she performed.

But this month, the quintet is taking a huge step toward solidifying its identity as a band with the release of its album Time Machine, which is the national-label debut for the group on Pisgah Ridge Records.

The band independently released its first album, Love the Way I Do, in 2011. When the group got ready to work on its next album, Williams looked up the folks at Crossroads Music in Arden, N.C., with whom he had worked with other bands, including the gospel group The Bishops.

"I asked if we could come over and play some of the songs live for them," Williams says. "We played four songs, and by the time we were done, they were like, 'When do we start a record?'"

Penn-Williams says, "We booked studio dates that day."

The band made four trips to Arden, in western North Carolina just south of Asheville, to record the album. The finished product shows the breadth of the band's talents, including the songwriting prowess of guitarist C.J. Cain, who wrote six of the 10 songs on the album. It also includes Guy Clark's Dublin Blues and Julie Miller's All My Tears (Be Washed Away). There are numerous mandolin breaks for Clint Hurd, and bassist Terry Poirier is a steady anchor on the record, as he has been for the band, in its various incarnations.

The band name Newtown comes from exactly where you think it does. Specifically, Williams says, Cain was nostalgic for the Red Slipper Lounge in the Holiday Inn North on Newtown Pike.

"That's where J.D. Crowe and his band played for years," Williams says. "He wanted to pay homage to J.D. and the city, and Newtown sounded pretty good."

It reflects part of the band's desire for Lexington, where all but Tennessean Hurd live. During an early evening chat at the Chevy Chase Starbucks, Williams and Penn-Williams spend quite a while lamenting that no longer is an active bluegrass music scene in Lexington, as there was in the days of the Red Slipper Lounge.

"Obviously it was a busy music area at one time, and it has just sort of fizzled," says Penn-Williams, who cites Willie's Locally Known on North Broadway as a venue that gives her hope for a bluegrass scene revival.

Williams is active in that effort, including serving on the Best of Bluegrass festival committee, planning next June's event, a precursor to the Festival of the Bluegrass.

Whatever the efforts, Newtown wants to be a part of the local scene, even as national distribution of Time Machine help raise awareness of the band.

"I always pictured myself being a sideman," Penn-Williams says. "Growing up, that's what I did, and I think I thought I'd just keep doing that. I don't think I ever saw myself at the front of a band situation, which is why I felt a lot more comfortable when they dropped my name and made it more of a band thing."

So really, after some time in the spotlight, Penn-Williams has wound up right where she expected to be.



What: Release party for the band's new album, Time Machine

When: 8 p.m. Nov. 1

Where: Natasha's Bistro & Bar, 112 Esplanade

Tickets: $10.

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