There is a cyclical nature to the work of NewTown. When one project ends, another begins — right away. So Kati Penn couldn’t help but laugh when asked about when work began on their just-released album, “Harlan Road.”
“The day after the last one was released,” she said. “I’m already, right now, contacting writers and looking for songs. I don’t even know the songs on this record yet, but I’m already looking for new ones. It’s pretty much a nonstop search.”
What fiddler and vocalist Penn and her husband, banjoist and vocalist Junior Williams, devised for “Harlan Road,” though, was more than just a batch of the best songs they could find. The Lexington-based couple of a multi-city band wanted to take NewTown up a level.
They weren’t thinking just in terms of popularity. All bands strive for that. The two also wanted the stylistic reach of their music to grow with its already mounting audience appeal.
“You work on the material and hope you find songs that we can better ourselves with for the next project, as well as someone from around here who is a great songwriter who just has an amazing viewpoint when it comes to writing songs,” Penn said. “Building on this material, we knew, by default, this record was going to be awesome.”
Once I heard ‘The Crows and the Jakes,’ it was on. I started searching for everything Tyler Childers has done. It was all Tyler Childers, all the time.
NewTown’s Kati Penn on the Eastern Kentucky songwriter featured on the band’s new album
The songwriter who Penn and Williams came across possessing such a viewpoint was Tyler Childers, the young Paintsville songsmith with an old Appalachian soul and a rapidly growing local and regional reputation as a performer. Four of his compositions, including the title tune, bolster “Harlan Road” and are presented as a set interrupted only by the non-Childers instrumental “The Feast of the Gryphon.”
“Once I heard ‘The Crows and the Jakes’ (the brittle, darting bluegrass requiem that’s one of the many highlights of ‘Harlan Road’), it was on,” Penn said. “I started searching for everything Tyler Childers has done. It was all Tyler Childers, all the time. I listened to everything I could find.”
Having come up with a song selection that pleased them (a roster rounded out by “Can’t Let Go,” a grassy makeover of the Randall Barry Weeks tune first popularized by Lucinda Williams on her landmark 1998 album “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”), Penn and Williams sought a producer. Who they landed was a minor legend within contemporary bluegrass circles: Barry Bales, longtime bassist for Alison Krauss and Union Station and a member of the Grammy-winning Flatt & Scruggs tribute band The Earls of Leicester.
“We wanted someone different, who was more focused on the Americana realm and not just traditional bluegrass,” Williams said. “Barry made us rethink some of the ways we approached the record. What he did was amazing. Kati and I both have listened to his music even before Alison, and then with Alison up to the present day. We were both kind of awestruck — starstruck, really, because he has recorded with so many different artists and has done all these cool things in bluegrass, country and Americana.”
Penn added, “He wasn’t intrusive. He didn’t try to change us at all. He just tried to make what we did sound good as it could be. If something didn’t need changing, he left it alone. There were a lot of things where I felt, with other producers, they would have come in and taken every single thing and ripped it all apart and changed it all around. He didn’t do any of that.”
You have to gel personally, because 98 percent of what you’re doing together is sitting in a vehicle. It’s not all fun and games, and when you’re a bluegrass musician, it’s not nearly as nice a vehicle as if you were in country music.
NewTown’s Kati Penn on choosing band members
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Penn and Williams leading up to work on “Harlan Road,” though, was simple logistics. The two had been playing together since the band formed in 2009, but a largely new band lineup was solidified shortly before work on the album was to begin. Making a new group spirit even harder to establish was that the three new players all lived in different states, none of which was Kentucky.
Bassist Travis Anderson, who joined in 2014, lives in Knoxville. Guitarist Hayes Griffin is originally from Columbus, Ohio, but moved further away, to Grand Rapids, Mich. Mandolinist Mitchell Cannon (who, like Griffin, joined last October) calls Burnsville, N.C., home.
“Getting that band spirit is the hardest thing,” Penn said. “You have to gel personally, because 98 percent of what you’re doing together is sitting in a vehicle. It’s not all fun and games, and when you’re a bluegrass musician, it’s not nearly as nice a vehicle as if you were in country music. Then you need to gel musically, too. You kind of want to have the same goals. If the person has a spouse, that spouse needs to be in line with that person’s goals. So many factors come into play. That’s why, with this bunch of guys that we have, everything lined up so perfectly. We’re willing and they’re willing. It’s mostly harder on them, really, than it is on us.”
Said Williams: “They’re totally committed to the band. We sat down and talked about what we thought our goals were for the future, and the guys were like, ‘Yeah, this is exactly where I want to be. You guys are headed in the right direction.’ Musically, it’s fantastic. Traveling, it’s fantastic. They’re a great bunch of guys. I’ve never heard one complaint. It’s always, ‘This is what we’ve got to do. Let’s go.’”
Read Walter Tunis’ blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.