Melody Walker, the lead vocalist of the San Francisco Bay Area's rising star in bluegrass known as Front Country, has been totally shaped by the San Francisco Bay Area — a place she has always lived and called home.
“We’ve been on tour basically since the start of the summer,” Walker tells me. “We’ve been, ah, houseless, most of us, and sort of in a transition-on-tour.”
We’re sitting backstage at the Great American Music Hall. Front Country has time only to swing through the Bay Area one last time, with no extended visits or over-drawn farewells, before finally settling in the band’s new home base of Nashville.
"I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area and I went to college up at Humboldt State, five hours north," she tells me. "I’m a real NorCal gal at heart, so this is kind of a big deal to me."
Front Country had previously announced the news of the move to Nashville via their social media, and the majority of friends and family in the audience were supportive and proud to see the band taking their act to Music City, USA.
When I asked Walker about the decision, she said it was a pretty easy one.
“Well the main reasons that we’re moving there are that it’s cheaper, it’s centrally located, and optimized for touring — it’s so easy to get everywhere and we tour so much it was getting to be that we were never home on the West Coast...So we kind of realized we needed to be central, and then the other reason is that all of our friends live there. I mean we have friends in the Bay Area, obviously, but there are all of these kindred musical spirits of the road that live there. For live music, professional musicians flock there....there’s something really romantic for me, you know, being a professional musician, to live in a place where that’s the norm; where most people are involved in the music industry.”
The music industry is changing, though. The corporate suits aren’t out of the equation yet, but let’s be real, they aren’t the ones setting up Greensky Bluegrass up to sell out Red Rocks — it's that community and good old-fashioned word-of-mouth that is stoking the fire under innovative string bands.
“A lot of people probably didn’t have such an open mind about, on a big level, selling bluegrass shows. Like, I don’t think anyone could have conceived of Greensky Bluegrass and what level they’re playing, or Yonder [Mountain String Band],” explains Walker. “I think it would take a leap of imagination for people back in the day to imagine bluegrass at this stadium-level sound and with a big light show that we see becoming the norm. I think that there’s more of a wide open opportunity these days for organic musical movements and affiliations to happen.”
When I asked what she meant by organic, Walker continued: “Well in like the '80s and '90s, the record companies decided that bluegrass wasn’t cool, you know, and they weren’t interested. It wasn’t whatever was on trend and now I think that there’s this ability for people find each other that are like-minded. You can build a grassroots organization around any weird music that you want to and it could really take off as long as you find the people that want to find you, you know?”
But despite asserting the real separation of what bands like Front Country, Greensky Bluegrass, or Yonder Mountain String Band actually are from what one might consider “traditional” string music, they will ultimately lead the listener back to the source. Fans might not find the wah-laden fiddles or rhythmic mandolin drenched in chorus or the audacity of the stand-up bass in the original renditions of classics like “Reuben’s Train,” but they will recognize the melodies and be able to visualize the evolution of “Grandpa’s Music” if not at the very least, enjoy it.
“When we think of limitations to these instruments or this music, we don’t have many limitations that we really hold ourselves to, you know?" asks Walker. “We’re trying to take these instruments and the soul of bluegrass and amplify it and make it bigger, more exciting and fun for us, fun for everyone else.”
From across the room, Jacob Groopman, guitarist for Front Country, chimes in. “I think the word bluegrass means a lot more than it has. It used to mean one thing, and there are people who still like it to mean only one thing, but I think the word bluegrass is able to mean a lot more things these days because you got a band like Greensky — bluegrass is literally in their name — playing giant clubs and playing traditional songs. Every time I’ve seen them they’ll pull out something like a “Reuben’s Train,” they are still keeping that spark alive and turning people onto those songs. If a fan goes to look up some of these songs, there’s no way they won’t stumble across something that they recognize and I think that level of respect is really important. They know exactly where they’re coming from.”
In an adjacent dressing room, the familiar tones of a plucked banjo and strummed guitar round out the background — Sweetwater String Band, a cello-driven foursome from the High Sierras, are warming up for their middle slot of tonight's show. Crow and The Canyon, a five-piece from Portland, OR is already on stage and warming up the crowd. Sweetwater is not on the bill for the length of tour with Front Country like Crow and The Canyon are, instead appearing as a special guest to thicken the lineup for a Thursday night in the city dubbed the West Coast New Roots Revival.
'New Roots Revival' is an interesting title, because as Walker and Groopman have been asserting, the music they make is, for want of a less repetitive phrase, hardly strictly "bluegrass." Sweetwater calls themselves "soul-grass," while Crow and The Canyon lean on their individual bluegrass-less backgrounds to create a new sound that is entrenched in the roots of the modern Americana melting pot.
Groopman went on to discuss the cycles of how bluegrass has existed in the American conciousness. Flatt and Scruggs had number one hits on the radio and played with hippie bands at The Fillmore, and the fast-pickin' banjo sounds simmered until O Brother Where Art Thou? reignited the fever in the early 2000s, "and now we're seeing more of a settling and assimilating of bluegrass into nearby genres and it's more popular with a wider audience than ever before." Groopman also drew parallels between the rabid fan bases of jam bands like The Grateful Dead and, in more recent history, Phish.
Speaking of wider audiences, Greensky Bluegrass have not only helped pave the way for Front Country's ascension to a larger stage, but they are taking the band under their wing and featuring Front Country as the main supporting act for their winter tour around the Southeast and Midwest. "We were planning on taking all of January off and just chilling out," Walker said. "But it just kind of came up."
Instead, Front Country will join the first two weeks of tour, kicking off January 11 in Cleveland, OH and playing their final show of the run on January 24 in Charlottesville, VA. The band agrees that they'd be hard pressed to find another seamless introduction to their new home market than as the hot new band that opened for Greensky, and that goes back to the organic drive that is pushing the genre today.
"It's always been a thing," insists Walker. "The idea of the bluegrass festival has been around for a couple generations now. Carlton Haney, the guy who invented the bluegrass festival, used to say it's the place where the longhairs and the shorthairs come together, and it's so true!"
Whatever the genesis the genre, there is no question that a true revival of Americana roots music is in progress, and per usual, the Bay Area has a band with its foot in the door, ready to take the scene by storm. We wrap the interview so I can catch Crow and The Canyon and witness the revival for myself.Tags: Front Country