Listen to the Asheville band Town Mountain, and you hear mandolin, banjo, the twang in the harmonies—all the markers of bluegrass.
But listen a little more closely. There are socially conscious lyrics and, on the new album—gasp—a drummer. From early on, band members say Town Mountain never quite fit within the bounds of traditional bluegrass.
“We weren’t close to the sound that the super-traditional bluegrass festivals wanted to hear, or the song content, honestly,” said Phil Barker, who sings and plays mandolin. “We didn’t play much gospel music, and our songs were a lot about drinkin’ and being on the road.”
Six albums into their career, Town Mountain has carved a niche in the broader world of country and bluegrass. They’ve performed several times at at MerleFest, the Grand Ol’ Opry and Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium—all badges of credibility and wider acceptance.
Town Mountain already performed its local album-release show, but if you don’t mind the drive, you can catch the band along its current tour Nov. 30 in Greer, South Carolina and Dec. 1 in Winston-Salem.
“Persistence, hanging’ around, continuing to make new music on our records—that’s played a big role in it,” founding guitarist and vocalist Robert Greer said of the band’s rise in the world of bluegrass.
“Phil writes a lot of songs. Sometimes when he presents a song for me, asks me to sing a song he, I feel he wrote the song specifically for me,” Greer said. “I feel that’s a strength of a songwriter.”
For Barker, joining Town Mountain fulfilled a sort of vision quest. He grew up in Greenville, S.C., learned to play guitar during the height of the grunge movement and soon gravitated to the Grateful Dead and the bluegrass band Jerry Garcia performed in on the side. At a friend’s invitation, he moved to north Texas after graduating college to form a bluegrass band.
“I was definitely thinking I was in the wrong town,” Barker said. “I could tell because there just wasn’t enough of this type of music around for people to even know what it is, let alone start to appreciate it.”
Still, Barker was committed to finding a life in bluegrass, and that commitment brought him to Asheville in 2003. He showed up to jam nights at Jack of the Wood and formed a bluegrass band called Steel String Theory with his friend from Texas. They made records, but the group stalled. His friend moved away, and Barker met the members of Town Mountain.
From the beginning, Barker brought a different dimension to the band’s music. A handful of his songs touch on environmental issues, particularly the effects of logging and strip-mining. Others are more personal.
“I remember the first song I brought to the band was one I’d written after I’d been denied health insurance coverage for the third time, and I was feeling broke and in a bind, and that song is ‘Ruination Line,’” Barker said. “Lyrically, we’d like something with a little more depth and maybe a little more relevant.”
Town Mountain also goes against the contemporary grain of the flashy string work found in most contemporary bluegrass by staying in a mid-tempo pocket, emphasizing harmonies and danceable songs.
“We’re not really a breakdown bluegrass band, not 180 beats per minute all the time. That’s not our strength,” Greer said. “We also have a gauge of what’s going to work well for us, and that’s what we aim for when we’re writing music.”
The new record, “New Freedom Blues,” is the band’s first with a drummer.
“It’s fun to play with drums. It warms up the rhythm section,” Greer said. “There’s still a lot of people who have hostility toward drums in bluegrass, and Town Mountain isn’t some of those people.”
Despite their commitment to their own music, Town Mountain’s most popular recorded song—and the fuel behind breaking to national attention—is a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.” The band can only hope its new material finds as much traction.
“We can only write about what we’re living through,” Barker said. “We could break any of the rules, definitely, but deep down, we all love really well-played bluegrass music.”