Dreamcatcher Blazes Its Own Path to Tradition
Dreamcatcher is a new band on the bluegrass scene, growing out of the Old Time, Bluegrass and Country Music Studies program and Pride Band at East Tennessee State University. It’s filled with young talent, four of whom are graduates or soon-to-be-graduates of the program, housed in the Department of Appalachian Studies. Members of the band were largely drawn to ETSU by this nationally known program that combines pre-professional instruction in music and the range of skills associated with developing a rounded career in bluegrass, country, and old-time music, although bluegrass seems to be the strongest focus.
Dreamcatcher was first formed by Aaron (Frosty) Foster and Troy Boone in 2015. Last year, Boone left to join Sideline, a group formed a few years ago when a group of Raleigh-area musicians decided they needed a side project to keep them busy during the off season. Within a couple of years, Sideline has exploded to well over 100 dates a year and emerging national prominence. Boone’s departure, however, highlights a problem especially faced by emerging college bands, whose well-trained professionalism is a sought-after commodity in national bands seeking replacements on the nonstop merry-go-round of bluegrass band membership. At ETSU, the well of possible replacements is deep, as an ever widening group of program graduates is extended by eager new recruits. Former Dreamcatcher band members have joined national touring bands like The Churchmen, primarily a gospel band, and The Clay Hess Band, a more progressive bluegrass band, while others have landed gigs with Becky Buller, Tim Stafford, Hunter Berry, and Kenny Chesney. The video below captures the transition from one banjo player to the next as Brady Wallen leaves the band and Eli Gilbert replaces him.
The five members of Dreamcatcher represent a remarkable variety of young men. When I first met Foster, at the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival in Vermont, he was an awkward young teenager with a new Deering Goodtime banjo standing on the outside of a jam as he was learning to make the characteristic Scruggs style rolls on the instrument. Today, at age 24, he’s emerged as a thoughtful, articulate leader of this rising band. Coming from Wells Bridge, New York, he was introduced to bluegrass festivals by his grandparents, still his most avid followers as well as well-known figures on the bluegrass trail. Not only is Frosty a first-rate flatpicking guitarist and budding singer, but he’s in high demand as a teacher at festival kids’ academies and workshops. Here’s Frosty leading the Kids Academy at Jenny Brook.
Eli Gilbert, who has just joined the band on banjo, comes from Yarmouth, Maine, but graduated from the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan and studied at Johns Hopkins’ highly esteemed Peabody Institute before transferring to ETSU. His first bluegrass experience came when he attended the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival in Maine at age 20. Two members of the band, Jordan Roberson and Ben Watlington, come from the North Carolina Piedmont region, just south of the Virginia state line. Watlington, the only band member with a traditional bluegrass upbringing, comes from generations of musicians who handed it down. Roberson, the only member of the band who is not an ETSU product, played in high school country rock bands, was introduced to the banjo by his grandpa, and fell in love with the Dobro at a jam. While playing with Dreamcatcher, he says he’s moved towards a “deeper appreciation of more traditional music.” Bass player Max Etling comes from the Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb of Plymouth, Minnesota, where he was first exposed to bluegrass “on a whim,” when he and his father attended a local bluegrass festival. From such diversity, a new bluegrass band hits the road.
Foster acknowledges the risks in forming a new touring band, but noted, “Each of us knows the risk we’re taking on when we sign up. But we’re young and single, so it’s a good time to give it a try. Meanwhile, we’ve provided ourselves with backup skills and are adding to our experiences,” which makes them increasingly valuable for a wide range of opportunities within the world of music or beyond it. Watlington suggests that his decision to attend college to develop skills and knowledge represents what may serve as a new paradigm for the professional and personal development of bluegrass musicians. It strikes me that the contemporary world of wide open communications and media penetration has opened doors that give young, upcoming musicians a broader and more comprehensive view of the world they are entering.
Dreamcatcher is not yet a great band. Its members are young and they’re still fresh and enthusiastic. They have yet to experience the bone-tiring fatigue and discouragement of week after week of traveling the roads in remote locations to appear early in the afternoon before empty seats. But they’re filled with enthusiasm, talent, and the eagerness of youth. They provide an insight into what appears to be an approach to developing as a band, learning the basics of the business they’re in, and hitting the road to sing bluegrass music. They have a new CD set to hit the streets soon. As a band playing songs from the traditional repertoire, Dreamcatcher is following a path unlike that of bluegrass bands from many other institutions, which tend to emphasize more progressive sounds. Grounded in the traditions of bluegrass by education and training more than by region, class, or heritage, they may, indeed, represent a new way for bluegrass bands to emerge.