SPOTLIGHT: Front Country Puts Down New Roots in ‘Protest Pop’
Photo by Kaitlyn Raitz
EDITOR’S NOTE: Front Country is No Depression‘s Spotlight band for October. Read more about the band and their new album, Impossible World (out Oct. 30), all month long.
Third albums can be momentous in the history of a band, and Front Country’s new Impossible World, out Oct. 30, is a prime example. After a career of mostly letting extracurricular activism do the talking as far as current events, Front Country has unveiled their most overtly political album to date — putting some blue into bluegrass.
Which is funny, actually, because Impossible World might be the record that will take Front Country out of the bluegrass world for good. The first sound on the opening track, “Miracle,” is the pulsing and pinging of electronic drums and keyboards, which makes it one of a number of songs here that would honestly sound more at home in a dance club than around a campfire at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
But the way Front Country’s own members see it, elements of this stylistic shift have been there all along. That goes back to the better part of a decade ago, when they formed out of a series of regular bluegrass jams at the San Francisco nightclub Amnesia before relocating to Nashville four years ago.
“None of us really come from a hardcore acoustic or bluegrass background,” says guitarist and singer Jacob Groopman. “I always played world music, jazz, and rock and roll, too, and we’re all big music nerds who are into everything. Prog rock, even. That was always a challenging thing to cover as a stringband. Given where we’re all coming from, in some ways this feels like the record we’ve been trying to make ever since we started the band.”
Indeed, when it comes to sound and instrumentation, Front Country is an idiosyncratic bunch. Multi-instrumentalist Adam “Roscoe” Roszkiewicz’s primary instrument is mandolin (before Front Country, he was nominated for a Grammy in 2012 as part of Modern Mandolin Quartet). Yet he describes himself as “obsessed with the sound of synthesizers” from having grown up with MTV in the 1980s and ’90s.
“I’m glad that synthesizers finally made their way onto a Front Country record,” he says.
Then there’s Melody Walker, Front Country’s principal songwriter and lead vocalist, whose big booming voice is the group’s most immediately identifiable signature. Recent years have found Walker putting down her guitar in favor of the pandero (a Brazilian tambourine) miked up to get what she calls “more boom-clack” in the mix.
Add up all of that, as well as producer Dan Knobler urging them to stretch out, and it’s something like a sonic blueprint for Impossible World.
“We’ve probably seen our last IBMA, but I really don’t see this as all that big a departure,” says Walker. “To me, the aesthetic and songs are still very much Front Country, and it’s just the window dressing that’s changed. Besides, we’ve never exactly been fully accepted as dead-center within any genre, whether bluegrass or folk or acoustic music. We’re more like in these nether regions between genres. So we decided to explore more musically, find potential we’ve not yet tapped into.
“It’s so hard to balance art and commerce,” Walker adds with a sigh. “I’m not saying there’s commercial motivation here so much as us buying into the idea that if you find your magic through your true voice, you’ll go further and find your audience. And yet at the same time, skeptic that I am, I have to admit that it sounds completely delusional to say that out loud. But what other choice do we have? We’re not trying to run away from anything in our past, just trying to explore without limits. We just have to hope that if we work hard and find our authentic voice, it will lead to the right audience.”
Sonic styles aside, Impossible World also grabs attention with the overt politics of the lyrics. Employing the spelling of 1960s anti-war activists, “Amerikan Dream” contrasts the reality of life in the United States with the country’s self-mythology: “They say it ain’t a prison ’cause you can always leave / You’re free to believe in the Amerikan dream.” Just in case anybody misses the point, the video for “Amerikan Dream” shows the song’s lyrics scrolling across a dollar bill.
Speaking of videos, “Broken Record” features hip-hop dancers and scenes from “Black Lives Matter” protests. It also doubles as a voting PSA, with details on how to register at the end.
Then there’s the album’s closing track, “The Reckoning,” which could not sound more up to the minute — except that Walker actually wrote it in 2019. But the song’s references to “running from the things we won’t admit,” “sickness,” “medicine,” and “the work we have to do” all make “The Reckoning” a perfect from-the-headlines vision of life right now in Donald Trump’s America, a country simultaneously convulsed with a pandemic and racial strife, with masses of people marching in the streets. The way it turned out is, Walker admits, a little eerie.
“‘Reckoning’ almost feels a little too much on the nose right now,” she says. “But that’s just what came out this time. I’ve always wanted to write protest songs but didn’t have all the tools and inspirations and life experiences you need. Like most musicians, I think I’ve got the spoonful-of-sugar part down. The medicine part of what you want to say and how to communicate it can take a while to figure out. But I’ve learned a lot the past few years, co-writing with friends and learning more about what songs can do. You could call these ‘message songs.’ Or ‘protest pop.’ Is that a genre that exists? Maybe it does now.”
Indeed, Impossible World is a collection of songs that seem tailor-made for uplifting performances in crowded spaces, exactly the sort of gatherings that can’t happen in the middle of a pandemic. That leaves Front Country in a bind, wondering what to do next.
“Oh, we were so close!” says Roszkiewicz. “We were literally rehearsing some of these songs with an expanded lineup the day our entire summer was canceled, which was frustrating. We’ll do some online stuff around the release, as much as we can manage, because we HAVE to play these songs. It’s one thing to make a record, but you also want to show it off to people, perform it, give a sense of what’s going on with it. Especially since it’s so different, but I hope people will just listen to it for what it is. I’m really proud of this record, which might be the best thing I’ve ever been part of. Melody has a catchphrase, ‘Get into it.’ Just check it out, no preconceptions, on its own merits. I think it’s kind of an epic listening experience.”