Music News & Reviews

Old-school bluegrass is putting Town Mountain on the map

Town Mountain — Phil Barker, left, Robert Greer, Bobby Britt, Rob Parks and Jesse Langlais— returns to Lexington for a show Friday.
Town Mountain — Phil Barker, left, Robert Greer, Bobby Britt, Rob Parks and Jesse Langlais— returns to Lexington for a show Friday.

When a bluegrass band calls itself Town Mountain, you can't help but wonder where the point of origin exists within its music.

Is it truly town-oriented, the product of even a modestly metropolitan upbringing, or does it hail from the mountainous regions that define string-band tradition and high-lonesome singing?

True to the name of this celebrated quintet, which has become a regular performance visitor to Lexington during the past year, both scenarios come into play. Town Mountain hails from the arts-centric North Carolina city of Asheville, which has a bluegrass community devout enough to sustain the band as it forms a national fan base.

But if you think that sets the stage for the slicker, cosmopolitan string sounds that continually pass for bluegrass, you are underestimating just how mighty the mountain inspirations are in Town Mountain's songs.

"We wanted to go for a more old-school-sounding thing," said Town Mountain guitarist and vocalist Robert Greer. "That comes from having like minds of what kind of sound we want to hear. For instance, we're way bigger Jimmy Martin fans than we are of ... well, I don't want to mention any names, but of the bluegrass that's selling today, which is kind of paralleling pop-country. That seems to be the movement of bluegrass these days. We're more into the gritty, honky tonk, old-school kind of stuff."

Helping to bring the mountains to Town Mountain on its two most recent recordings, 2011's Steady Operator and 2012's Leave the Bottle, is Mike Bub, an alumnus of one of the most heralded bluegrass troupes of recent years, the Del McCoury Band.

Town Mountain already had the songs lined up for Leave the Bottle, most of which were penned by mandolinist Phil Barker and banjoist Jesse Langlais. Fiddler Bobby Britt contributed the instrumental Four Miles, which spins bluegrass back to its Irish roots, while Greer added the blue-collar barn burner Up the Ladder. An elegant but powerfully mournful reading of Loaded, by the decidedly non-bluegrass Wood Brothers, rounded out the repertoire. What Bub did was make the most of the live recording techniques Greer felt were necessary to capture Town Mountain's vintage-minded bluegrass vitality.

"The reason I contacted Mike was because we wanted to record live in the studio," Greer said. "All of the records he did with Del — he made, I think, eight records with him — were done that way. Plus, he can pick apart harmonies and hear every part. Just his knowledge of bluegrass and country music is so extensive. The brand of bluegrass that he likes and enjoys is similar to what we're into. That's why we got him as opposed to a more contemporary-minded, new-school bluegrass guy."

But Asheville also played a generous role in the formation of Town Mountain — its active music community, which drew Greer to North Carolina from his south Georgia upbringing.

"There are a ton of younger musicians here," Greer said. "That growth started probably 20 years ago. The arts scene was here before that. About the time I moved here 10 or 11 years ago, all of that was well in place. I moved to Asheville specifically for music. A lot of people are doing the very same thing. "

That community served Town Mountain well when bassist Rob Parks was enlisted as its newest member late last year.

"This band was founded by friends who met each other at picking parties here in Asheville," Greer said. "That's the way we've rolled when we had turnovers. We just picked up another good musician buddy here in town. That's how we've done it in the past. Rob is working out like a champ, too. He's going to fit in a van just as well as he's going to fit in onstage."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader