Town Mountain Channels Old & In The Way
The more I listened to Town Mountain’s release New Freedom Blues for this review, the more I was dragged back to the 1970s and car journeys across America listening to Old & In The Way. That is no bad thing – for me, for you, or for what Town Mountain, previously a pretty-much pure bluegrass band, say they are trying to achieve.
For those not familiar with O&ITW, it was a side project of one Jerry Garcia and a group of fine musicians including the late, great fiddler Vassar Clements. It was bluegrass – but with such a hefty twist away from the traditional genre that it moved into Grateful Dead and outlaw country territory.
So it is to a large extent with this Town Mountain offering. The band, in the words of banjo player Jesse Langais, decided that for their sixth studio album they would stop trying to squeeze songs into bluegrass and would play them “for what they are, as opposed to what we thought they should be.”
This means most of the songs on New Freedom Blues are bluegrass-inspired rather than bluegrass. They are peppered with country, a bit of rockabilly here and there, and even something approaching cowboy rock. Town Mountain have, for the first time, brought in a drummer – Miles Miller, who works more typically with country singer Sturgill Simpson — to give the sound a harder edge.
Given this, it is a perhaps a shame that the first track on the album is the title song, “New Freedom Blues.” It is fairly traditional bluegrass tune and though there is nothing at all wrong with that, it doesn’t introduce you particularly well to what the album is aiming for. It takes a more concerted listen to get to that.
One example is “One Drop In The Bottle,” a very pleasing Western country tune with slow banjo, pedal steel, and lyrics to capture the lost highway: “Don’t that sun move so slow / Don’t that sky stretch wide / One drop in the bottle, is enough to get you through / But where will you be when it runs dry.”
A similar outlaw theme comes with “Down Low,” a twangy dirge Langlais reckons is reminiscent of something Waylon Jennings would have done. (He has a point, minus Waylon’s gravel voice, of course). It is all about being on the outside of society: “When you see me out tonight tearing up the promenade / people stop and step aside so I can move along / is it just because they’re friendly or the fact that I am gone / stepping over lines of the paths they travel on.”
Town Mountain gets a little political, although not in an overtly partisan way. “Life and Debt” is a rocky country song about the heavy debt load of many working- and middle-class Americans, a condition the band blames squarely on politicians.
In a similar vein is the rockabilly-ish “Witch Trials,” which may be a reference to the so-called Flowing Wells Witch Trial of 1971 (yes, 1971) in Arizona. It is about people believing what they hear without evidence: “Believe everything you hear / all of what you read / Don’t worry about the facts / ain’t no need.”
To keep the purists happy, meanwhile, there are also a number of more traditional bluegrass tunes dropped in the track list, notably “Lazy River” (about the Suwannee) and the instrumental “Tar Heel” (the band is from Asheville, North Carolina).
There is a fair chance that if Town Mountain keeps with this “sonic evolution,” it will hang on to its longtime fans and bring in a lot of new ones. This bluegrass-plus album is a rollicking ride of banjo, fiddle, and guitar that takes you in many satisfying directions without eschewing the band’s and the genre’s roots. A bit O&ITW, in fact.