Front Country Expands to New Territory
“In the bluegrass world, musicians tend to define themselves by their tradition and discipline. But Front Country is defined by it’s no-rules approach.” NPR Music
Front Country is just as comfortable covering an old traditional tune as it is a 1980’s popular rock tune. Their acoustic bluegrass instrumentation could lead some to expect some “high lonesome’ Appalachian sound rooted in the Bill Monroe tradition. In fact, this Bay area band is exploring what it means to push the boundaries toward “roots pop”. The way they merge their acoustic sound with their pop sensibilities makes this music uniquely complex yet infectious.
Bluegrass music as a genre has been traditionally an East coast phenomenon. There have, however, been “Left Coast” bluegrassers from the early days of the genre. Vern and Ray come to mind. David Grisman and Jerry Garcia explored their roots in the Bay Area in the early 60’s. Nickel Creek had their roots in Southern California and some of the best pickers ever like Tony Rice and Clarence White made their names in Los Angeles. Peter Rowan has long maintained his Pacific roots and Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands continue to blend their west coast feel into bluegrass traditions. In fact, Laurie Lewis produced some of the Front Country members early work and lends her voice to their latest effort, Other Love Songs.They are clearly not the only West Coast band mining this territory. Front Country is an acoustic band born in the land of tech innovation. This geographical birth made acceptance into the bluegrass mainstream harder to achieve. Their authenticity has been forged in bluegrass jam sessions in the Mission District of San Francisco for their formative early years. It wasn’t until their hard touring schedule culminated into invitations to the larger Summer festival did this band hit it’s stride. In 2012 and 2013, they won awards at both RockyGrass and Telluride Bluegrass festivals. The impetus towards a full time touring band had begun.The experience has led to accolades from their musical colleagues such as Tim Carbone (Railroad Earth) who believes…”Front Country is the best new bluegrass band out there…Period.” Chris Pandolfi (Infamous Stringdusters) states “Front Country has drawn on the ever valuable lessons of bluegrass while making music that is distinctly their own…Front Country have arrived, the latest acoustic ambassadors to emerge from the California coast.”
Arrive, they have! To Nashville, Tennessee.I ask the band members about their recent move to Nashville and the considerably different culture from the Bay Area. All of the members agree that it was a natural progression. “Most of our favorite bands and best friends live there. We joke that when we are home off-tour, It’s like a musician’s summer camp.” Melody Walker, the band’s powerhouse singer and primary songwriter, notes the opportunities to collaborate and cowrite in this music mecca, “we are chilling hard, grilling, jamming and relishing the opportunity to hang out with whoever is off the road that particular week or day. I had never really co-written or even liked co-writing before I moved to Nashville, but it has been a really fun way to hang hard with my friends and people I admire deeply and learn from them. There’s such an intimacy to it, that you can really foster bonding and understanding that is hard to cultivate in ‘adult friending’. It’s a wonderful practice. Touring like we do, up to 150 shows a year, is hard and it’s invaluable to have friends who understand the perils of the road.”
That kind of touring has really solidified the concept of “being in a band” together. Everyone has different skills and tasks to do. Jacob Groopman, the band’s lead guitarist and background vocalist, explains,”Front Country operates as a collective and we strive for everyone in the band to have equal voice in how we operate. We all have specific roles we keep outside of the music to allow ourselves to operate and work together. One person does the merchandise, one person does tour management, another person handles most of the social media responsibilities. I handle a lot of the general management. Musically we collaborate to create our sound with a no limits approach to how we arrange and use the various instruments to create our unique sound.” Adam “Roscoe” Roszkiewicz , mandolin maestro,agrees,”We all different jobs in the band. I handle the gear and have recently started doing tour manager duties. Jacob coordinates with the booking agent and the record label. We all drive!” In summary, Melody, says “Front Country is very chill on the road. We are a team. We arrange the music and make business decisions democratically. I usually find the good hotels and food. We eat well when we have the choice, and we try not to sleep on floors whenever possible. Keeping morale up on tour is key to the whole operation. The road is generally not one big party, and even though it’s our job to throw a party for other people almost every night, we have to stay relatively healthy in order to bring the party to everyone else. It’s a marathon not a sprint, and we’re all in this for the long haul.”
The band’s latest release, Other Love Songs, is a quantum leap forward in the band’s sound. All Front country members seem to agree that ,Other Love Songs, is all about progress. Jeremy Darrow, their bass player, notes,”The new work displays the progress we’re making as a band. Records give you a snapshot of where a group are on a line, but a lot happens between those points. As we were preparing to record we knew that we would be incorporating a lot of new ideas about the things we’re good at as a band. As we went from demos to rehearsals, listening to playbacks and mixes etc., it became an exciting new chapter for the band.” Jacob agrees with that assessment. “We definitely feel like this record is a big step forward for the band. The record was recorded with very few extra production elements or effects. It’s just us and sonically the record reflects that. We wanted to expand on what we’ve achieved on the previous record. I do feel like we’ve broken new ground as a band in the acoustic realm with our ability to bring in pop songwriting and arranging elements to the “string band’ context. Melody also broke some new ground for herself with the songs she wrote for this record. Love songs are not something she has spent much time on in the past and she pushed herself to head down that path here.”
At the core of this successful release is Melody Walker’s songwriting.Woody Platt from the Steep Canyon Rangers notes “Front Country is anchored by the pure power and touch of Melody Walker’s lead vocal. She brings an attack that has a hint of effortless irreverence while revealing brutal honesty and vulnerability in both singing and songwriting.” She writes eight of the album’s dozen new tunes and those originals are the strength of the effort. “These songs”, according to Melody, ”speak of emotional maturity and vulnerability in which all of us learn to break down toxic romantic fairy tales and write our own Other Love Songs that work for real people in the real world.”
Melody discusses the title of the new disc, Other Love Songs, when she states “Love works best when we can accept ourselves and one another with all our virtues and flaws, and start creating our own unique path that works for us.” Traditional love ballads they are not. They are, however, real and authentic odes to the many aspects of relationships. Like in “I Don’t Wanna Die Angry”, Melody writes “Every time we touch it feels like the first night And every time we kiss it feels like the last try, I’ve been writing you letters tryna make it all alright, but every time we fight it feels like goodbye.’ Relationships for stubborn intelligent people can be messy and a lot of work but worth the efforts as she concludes, “And it hurts that I can’t keep control of my words, And I can’t unhear all I heard, Come on baby, don’t let it go down like that.” Melody explains “…this song wasn’t as difficult to write as it was to release to the world. As the record was about to come out, and we’re bringing the new songs to the stage, the usual feelings of insecurity with new material was heightened by the inherent vulnerability in these songs.”
The debut track on the new release, “If Something Breaks” relates a couple’s struggles of doubt when the singer’s anxiety is described “I’m afraid that you’ll see me as I am. I’m afraid that you’ll wake up one day and the fog will have lifted, And you won’t like what you find, As if I was a sorcerer, As if I could make you see something that wasn’t there before, Or change your mind.” Melody mentions that “this song is probably the most autobiographical for the band. Front Country has been around for six years, but has only recently transitioned into a full time international touring group. We’re still stransitioning in some ways…the song is about a band pretending to be a relationship song, in disguise as a car song. That track is also a great example of the sound we’ve been developing over the past few years, interlocking textural grooves created solely on acoustic instruments, with very few effects or added parts. It’s the first song we arranged for the record. We knew it was probably the first track so it was the hardest to record because we had such big expectations for it.”
Other tunes describe a town gone to seed like a broken relationship in Lonesome Town. “It was a last outpost and the living was slow, It didn’t make a sound when he put it down, And the black crow flew to the very next town.” The metaphor switches back to broken hearts in Undone. “You let me taste everything I wanted, You gave it and you took it away, And if you should come back, it won’t ever fix it, Some things never grow back the same.” This song “was inspired by a friend’s experience of being led on in a very intense relationship and then suddenly dumped with no explanation. We’ve all experienced something like that and it’s the absolute worst because you can never get closure and deep down you want that person to see the hurt. you may never get that either.”O Heartbreaker and Keep Travelin mine the same yearning for that special feeling, even if the other partner isn’t in the same space emotionally (O Heartbreaker) or physically (Keep Travelin’). The hope for growth and learning from one’s mistakes reemerge in most of this disc’s lyrics. Hardly the stuff of old school bluegrass but the arrangement by this crack band gives the weighty lyrics a place to meld with the lonesome fiddle and the melancholy mandolin runs. Other Love Songs, indeed.
This talented band gives these tunes wings. Adam “Roscoe” Roszkiewicz is a revelation on mandolin. It’s no wonder he was nominated for a Grammy for his work as part of the Modern Mandolin Quartet. Tasteful when he needs to be and driving when the tune requires it. Very impressive especially in the two signature instrumental pieces he wrote for the release, T.H.A.T.S and the Bill Monroe- inspired ‘Sometimes It Does’.” Roscoe is one of the best musicians I’ve had the opportunity to work with. His musicianship is incredible and his compositions are so unique and powerful. It’s a pleasure to play music with him every night”,bandmate Jacob Groopman gushes. Likewise, Melody adds, “Roscoe transformed my tune GLYP from a piano based tune with an old 80″s drum machine app when he wrote this sort of classical mini concerto of running triplets over the chords and that became the instrumental section and outro. That section is probably the most exquisite spot on the album for me.” For his part, Jacob Groopman channels Tony Rice in his guitar leads and background vocals. His version of David Olney’s “Millionaire” drew the expected political references to our current leadership. Hisses and boos were encouraged during the live show.
The band has previously released a CD called Mix Tape, an ambitious collection of covers as diverse as King Crimson and Tuneyards songs as well as an amazing cover of Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer”. Certainly not your traditional bluegrass covers disc. This “out of the box” thinking also defines Melody Walker’s approach to politics and social issues. Devon Leger in Paste Magazine explains “she routinely calls out the sexism, racism and injustice she sees in the world, a difficult thing to do in an industry still run by conservative elements. Walker came up in the Bay Area bluegrass scene. This scene is sometimes pejoratively referred to as “CPG”, Colorado Pussy Grass. It’s a title that Walker and others have reclaimed, making it almost a badge of honor.”
Melody has found ‘like minds’ in a progressive slice of Nashville’s sometimes stodgy ideology. She’s done several cowrites, which can be found in videos online, on more political or philosophical topics this year with friends like Molly Tuttle, Lindsay Lou Rilko, Justin Hiltner and Rachel Baiman. “The song ‘Live and Let Live’ that Justin and I wrote for Bluegrass Pride was intentionally one-sidedly positive and affirming. It describes a not-so-difficult to imagine utopia where parents love their children for who they are, and where bluegrass and LGBT rights go together like biscuits and gravy. What could be more American and patriotic than honoring every citizen’s rights and personal freedoms? It’s pretty simple when you put it that way, and ADD BANJO!”
Walker believes that theirs and others efforts may be making a difference. “I think the bluegrass scene was broken wide open in the 70’s and 80’s revival not only to women but also an expanded definition of the genre. That revolution fostered this new generation of pickers that have grown up largely unencumbered by past limitations. We are starting to have some much more open and radical conversations within the IBMA about breaking those next barriers of inclusivity, and making sure LGBT and people of color are included, and that even more political and musical viewpoints are welcome. It’s really exciting and it makes me proud of my scene and hopeful for the future.”
Fans of Front Country are also very hopeful for this band’s future as well. The combination of intelligent lyrics, stellar playing and the room- dominating vocal presence of Ms Walker should assure that Front Country will continue adding new territory as they leave impressed fans in their wake. Other Love Songs is available now from Organic Records.