Todd Grebe was facing some hard decisions.
He and his wife, fiddle player Angela Oudean, were at a musical crossroads after the seminal Alaska bluegrass band Bearfoot dissolved. Meanwhile, Oudean was pregnant with the couple's first child.
With a move from Nashville back to their native Alaska already in the works, Grebe took stock of his career, and considered whether continuing as a full-time musician was prudent, or even viable.
In true honky-tonk fashion, Grebe stared solemnly at his hand, and pushed all of his chips into the middle of the table.
Instead of starting from scratch, Grebe revived Cold Country, a band he'd formed in 2008 and with whom he had already recorded a pair of albums.
Grebe upped the ante with "Citizen," his latest effort with Cold Country. The album was produced in Nashville and takes the band in a new direction with an electrified country sound.
"I thought 'We're one foot in and one foot out,' " Grebe said. " 'Are we going to double down on this or are we going to walk away from it?' I think we can do it. If we can, it will afford us a lot of time to raise our daughter, which is the most important thing to me. I can go get a 40-hour-a-week job anywhere."
The album also features plenty of Grebe's original songwriting, which shifts between sincere and wry.
Grebe's entrée into the Alaska music scene came with Well Strung, a bluegrass band he formed with friend and Cold Country bassist Conor McManamin.
The band mostly played traditional bluegrass songs, so Grebe started Cold Country as an acoustic string band that allowed him to showcase the songs he was writing.
"It was basically a bluegrass band without a banjo because I was writing songs that didn't necessarily fit the bluegrass mold," Grebe said.
After playing throughout the state for about five years, Grebe took the leap and moved to Nashville, in part because Oudean and other members of Bearfoot had relocated there.
"They decided to move to Nashville and I just thought, what the hell, I'm not doing anything," Grebe said. "I'll go to Nashville."
He dove headfirst into the Nashville music scene, taking lessons and continuing to write songs while seeing as much live music as he could.
"The first three months I was there, I was out five nights a week watching music," he said. "Growing up in Alaska, you just have limited exposure. The next thing you know, you're able to see all your heroes. They're right there and you can talk to them, and eventually you can probably play with them too."
It also served as a tutorial for the music business.
"That contributed a lot, not just in musicianship but also professionalism," he said.
Before long, Bearfoot had a change in the lineup, and Grebe joined the band. He had already recorded an album with Cold Country in Alaska, and cut a second one in 2010 when he was playing with Bearfoot, but Grebe still considered it a back-burner project.
Grebe and Oudean, who was a founding member of Bearfoot, were both in limbo when the band played its final show in early 2013.
"I thought starting a new band and a new career is kind of ludicrous out in Nashville," he said. "All our family is in Alaska. I didn't want to work a regular job in Nashville. It was the one condition I put on myself. If we're going to live in Nashville, we have to make a living as musicians. Otherwise it's not worth it."
Grebe returned to Alaska and found the music scene different and improved from the one he left.
"Part of the reason I moved to Nashville wasn't just because Angela wanted to and Bearfoot was doing so well," he said. "I felt I was looking at a ceiling in Alaska, and more to the point, I felt like there weren't enough musicians that wanted to do what I wanted to do, because they all had other priorities, they wanted to be pilots or fishermen or had a regular job so music was just a hobby. I didn't want that. I wanted to make it a full-time thing. I think that's changed a lot, even in the last five years. We have more venues and more musicians, and Alaska is really growing up in that way."
That led Grebe to believe, between teaching lessons and playing gigs, operating as a working musician might be the best option.
"I looked around and said we can make it work here in a way we can't in Nashville," he said. "There's a lot of work. For us right now, being a regional or local band, it's working and frankly it's more attractive to me."
With "Citizen," Grebe takes what was formerly an acoustic band on a detour, blending electric guitar and bass with Oudean's fiddle playing for a decidedly honky-tonk sound.
"The last two summers, we've been in Alaska," he said. "Our original mandolin player (Nate May) has been playing more electric guitar. (Conor) has been playing electric bass and I was like, here's a different formation and a different sound for the band. There was a learning curve. We're really bluegrass musicians and we're trying to play country music, but all the songs fit in that mold. The way the songs are executed is informed by the fact we're playing with those instruments."
For the album, Grebe used a mix of Alaska and Nashville musicians, with Grammy-winning engineer David Ferguson helping craft the classic country sound.
Grebe took the extra step of adding pedal steel guitar and piano from experienced session musicians in Nashville and has hired a PR agency to help promote the album, which is being released nationally. He also received a Rasmuson Award in part to produce and promote the album.
"Previously I would've just called it done at the meat and potatoes, but because we had a little more of a budget and I wanted to make a bigger push," he said, "I thought, let's add some stuff and make it a little more lush and a little bigger."
Todd Grebe and Cold Country
Album release party for "Citizen"
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, June 18
Where: Tap Root Public House
Tickets: $8 at taprootalaska.com or at the door
Album available at release party or www.toddgrebe.com/store
Alaska Dispatch Publishing