Town Mountain takes traditional bluegrass far into the north country

Chris Bieri
Town Mountain

When it came to booking tour stops in Alaska, Town Mountain did not slow-play its hand.

The Carolina string band pushed all its chips on the table.

Town Mountain completes its seven-show Midnight Sun run with a stop Friday at the Tap Root Public House before closing the tour Saturday at the Sitzmark Bar and Grill in Girdwood.

Included in the Alaska tour were stops in Seward, Talkeetna and Denali Park. But it was a two-day stint at the Midnight Sun Folk Fest in Nome that allowed the band to do an extended run of shows in Alaska.

"We know it's a beautiful place," Town Mountain banjo player Jesse Langlais said. "It's hard to do a run like that without a solid anchor. We didn't want to go up there for a weekend of shows. We're going to try to make something out of it and have the whole Alaska experience and make some new fans."

Town Mountain built its reputation as a bluegrass throwback by incorporating the hard-driving picking and closely braided harmonies established by the genre's musical father, Bill Monroe. The band also uses elements of swing, country and rhythm and blues noticeable on the earliest Monroe recordings, which have largely disappeared from contemporary bluegrass.

"Our band I always say is a traditional bluegrass band, although we may sound progressive," Langlais said. "There are elements of our music that ride both of our lines. We have a lot of early country, honky tonk and early bluegrass influence. In that way, we sound more traditional."

The band's most recent release, "Leave the Bottle," showcases that sound.

The album's title track starts out as a choppy waltz carried by singer/guitarist Robert Greer before swinging into a chorus, advising the bartender that one drink won't be enough to forget a lost love. "Lawdog" is a defiant tune written by mandolin player Phil Barker about a traveling bluegrass man's run-ins with the authorities. "Up the Ladder" boogies enough that it could be a neat fit into Sun Records' catalog of the 1950s.

While Greer handles most of the lead singing duties, Town Mountain has hung its hat on solid songwriting throughout the band.

"Everybody has their own voice when it comes to writing a song, figuratively speaking," Langlais said. "Robert does all of the lead singing, so we have a predominant lead singer and everybody writing songs for this singer. You have a cohesiveness for the sound of the band. It's fun for a songwriter to write for somebody else. More material gets cut than makes it, but it hones in on the collective sound. It's a good thing. It's nice to have strong songwriters in the band."

Formed in the fertile music scene of Asheville, North Carolina, the band has had some personnel changes, but has always replaced outgoing members with friends from the area.

"There are a lot of friendships in this band, which is something we pride ourselves in," Langlais said.

The band will get a chance to play with one of their genre's luminaries next month when they open for Ralph Stanley in Chicago.

"He gets a lot of airplay on Town Mountain radio," Langlais joked. "We're pretty excited for that; the show with Ralph is going to be pretty amazing. It's hard to quantify it in words. Ralph Stanley is one of those legends and people who will never be forgotten."

But before heading back to the Lower 48, Langlais said the band is prepared to impress Alaskan audiences during the long days that surround the solstice.

"A few years ago, we kind of pregamed it with a (summer) tour to Finland," he said. "It was 20-22 hours of sunlight with a few hours of dusk. People make hay when the sun shines, when they have the opportunity to do it. We're expecting it and we're going to have a good time."

By Chris Bieri