Monday, March 28, 2016

Asheville's Town Mountain releases their new album Southern Crescent April 1st

It’s hard to find a list of “Best Places To Live” that does not have Asheville, NC on it. The people, the community, the arts, the Blue Ridge Mountains: all combine to keep Asheville high on any list for people searching for an upgrade on quality-of-life. When writers scratch the surface they discover a local bluegrass music scene that draws from and gives back all of these qualities. There’s no better example of this than Asheville-based bluegrass band Town Mountain. What started as a local project has quickly became known throughout the national bluegrass music scene for heartfelt songs, crisp and clean picking, and the unmistakable South Georgia voice of Robert Greer.
Southern Crescent

Town Mountain is releasing their fifth studio album, Southern Crescent, on April 1st. The album was recorded by producer, Grammy winner, and all-around music genius Dirk Powell in his home studio in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. The studio, dubbed The Cypress House, lives up to its name by being fully constructed with cypress planks. “We wanted to get a little South Louisiana flavor in it!” jokes Greer, Town Mountain’s lead vocalist and guitarist.   

Southern Crescent has the feel and groove of a live album with professional studio recording quality. “We walked into the studio and had never met Dirk before, so it’s kinda strange, because you’re going to get after some serious work for large amounts of time,” says Greer. “We go in and he’s got 3 mics set up in this awesome room and says ‘A’right, let’s get to it!’   He wanted us to work it like we’re onstage. I sang everything live and we recorded like we were standing in his living room. It was a great experience, and we all loved working with Dirk. I came out of that experience thinking that’s how I want to record every record from here on out.”  

Much like the first generation bluegrass bands would start shows with a short and to-the-point blazing instrumental to grab everyone’s attention, this album comes out hot with Bobby Brit’s fiddle-led “St. Augustine.” Brit’s fiddle is consistently creative and smooth throughout the album and an absolute show-stopper in their live shows.

Phil Barker, Jesse Langlais, Bobby Brit, Robert Greer
The second track, “Ain’t Gonna Worry Me,”  slows it down to feature the deep and comfy groove these guys find with each other. You’ll be excused if you don’t readily notice the drums played on this track by Dirk Powell. Powell’s ability to layer non-bluegrass instruments into this album, providing both groove and a sonic thickness without drawing explicit attention to them, is quite impressive and highlights his producer capabilities.

The title track, “Southern Crescent,” presents the voice of mandolinist Phil Barker, and is one of two songs he co-wrote with Charles Humphrey III, the bassist for Steep Canyon Rangers. (Humphrey is a prolific songwriter and is fresh off accolades for the 3rd release with his sideband Songs From The Road Band.) A hard driving train song, “Southern Crescent” features tight vocal harmonies, as well as Jesse Langlais’ unique banjo style that combines impressive Scruggs-style timing with subtle blues licks that always seem to fit perfectly within each song.    

The bluegrass coming out of Asheville, NC is arguably some of the best in the world. I would even claim that in passion, picking, and individuality it rivals Nashville, TN. Balsam Range and Steep Canyon Rangers have been on the forefront of taking the Western NC sound to national and worldwide audiences, and Town Mountain is on their way to completing this trifecta of nationally known Asheville bluegrass bands. There are several prominent reasons for their rise, including songwriting, creativity, and instrumental prowess, but one that stands out is the voice of Robert Greer. His singing voice and speaking voice are nearly one and the same with a deeply southern Georgia accent that, for many of us, produces a sense of hometown-like comfort. Greer grew up singing in the Methodist church, but he didn’t start playing bluegrass guitar until he was 25. “I was tired of asking my friends to accompany me on bluegrass songs I wanted to sing, so I figured I better learn how to play,” says Greer.
The bluegrass bands that will find success in today’s musical multiverse are going to embrace their individual voices and steer towards a more genuine sound as opposed to one that is digitally polished and bland.  Town Mountain is leading the way in this aspect, from their studio recordings and their live shows to the national praise they’ve received for their unique take on Springsteen’s classic hit “I’m On Fire.” Atlantic Monthly chose it as one of the “most transformative cover songs of the year” and wrote, “They dropped the synthesizer, added a banjo, a fiddle, and another singer for harmony, and made a gem.”

Southern Crescent is a near-perfect balance of tradition and young, raw energy. On the surface it’s solid bluegrass, but astute listeners will hear more. They’ll hear a hundred years of southern musical culture bubbling up and finding a common point where North Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana meet as old friends. Town Mountain’s style and sonic footprint comes from a foundation of rhythm and groove that comes not from just loving the music (that’s too easy) but from living the music.

"Wildbird" --Track 6

Written by Phil Barker

Wildbird is about feeling restless, and being an outsider. Not fitting in with your hometown, losing in love, and feeling like maybe you need a drink to get through the night. I got the idea for this song driving on the highway and every so often noticing a singular bird circling in the sky on the side of the road… not standing still, but not really going anywhere either. -- Phil Barker

The Making of Southern Crescent

Town Mountain on Tour 2016:
4/1 Fri - The Grey Eagle - Asheville, NC
4/2 Sat - Newgrass Brewing Company - Shelby, NC
4/5 Tue - Hampton Taphouse - Hampton, VA
4/6 Wed - Gypsy Sally's - Washington, DC
4/7 Thu - Lizard Lounge - Cambridge, MA
4/8 Fri - Hill Country BBQ - New York, NY
4/9 Sat - The Hobo Stage - Fredon, NJ
4/10 Sun - Tin Angel - Philadelphia, PA
4/12 Tue - Haymarket Whiskey Bar - Louisville, KY
4/13 Wed - Cosmic Charlie’s - Lexington, KY
4/14 Thu - The Station Inn - Nashville, TN
4/15 Fri - Barley's - Knoxville, TN
4/16 Sat - Waverly “Old 280” Boogie - Waverly, AL
4/17 Sun - Zydeco - Birmingham, AL
4/28 Thu - Independent Ale House - Greenville, SC
5/13 Fri - KSUT Concert Series @ Henry Strater Theatre - Durango, CO
5/14 Sat - Denver Beer Co.’s Sundrenched Music Festival - Denver, CO
5/21 Sat - The Pour House - Charleston, SC (with Peter Rowan)
5/27 Fri - White Squirrel Festival - Brevard, NC
5/28 Sat - Rooster Walk - Martinsville, VA
6/11 Festival of the Bluegrass - Lexington, KY
6/16 Thu - Back Porch Music Series - Durham, NC
6/23 Thu - Rudyfest 16 - Grayson, KY            
6/24 Fri - ROMP Fest - Owensboro, KY
7/23 Sat - Homegrown Music Festival - Ozark, AR

Erin Scholze, Dreamspider Publicity

--Brian Paul Swenk

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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

"Marcia, Marcia, Marcia" The Daily Reality of Sexism

[This review does not contain spoilers. It's a fictionalized historical account--we already know what happened]

Can television be great art?

The simple answer, I believe, is "yes."

The more complex answer, considering it an extension of today's golden age of writing and acting, is also "yes."

The sixth episode of American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson will most likely be the best episode of this surprisingly great series, but it could also go down as one of the best hours of television this year.

The characteristics of what makes art great depends on what form and even what derivative we consider. Writing, combined with acting, whether on TV, movies, or on stage, has the ability to change us by living, even for a brief moment, as someone else. The power to make us forget who we are and, much more importantly, what we believe is the ultimate shape-shifting transcendent time-machine. The classic 80s show Quantum Leap, where actor Scott Bakula travelled through time and inhabited other people's bodies for a short time, wasn't about time travel as much as it was about the basic act of watching stories in moving picture form. In a creatively artistic way, it was subversive meta-television.

Episode 6 of American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson places us within the body of Marcia Clark, the LA County prosecutor in charge of the court trial that, at this point, is beginning to spin wildly out of control.

When the series was announced it felt like someone was dragging a bag of old garbage back inside, hoping to find something of slight value to make a quick buck. Most of us lived through this moment when, to put it mildly, a media-whore of a judge allowed the trial to be broadcast on live television and millions around the world watched in real-time how money and fame trumps our judicial system. "Do we really need to live it again?" many of us asked both vocally and subconsciously.

But there was a moment early in the series (episode 2) where Robert Kardashian is admonishing his three kids for celebrating the brief fame their father is experiencing by saying, "We are Kardashians. And in this family, being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous. Fame is fleeting. It means nothing without a virtuous heart." These words, said by the one member of the defense team that suffers from both a conscience and a blinding devotion to his long-time friend OJ, marks a definitive moment both for the series and for American culture, as we all know the kids will become famous for the very act of just being famous.

What this series does is not only force us to confront our celebrity-obsessed culture but finds a point in history that shows its birth after several decades of media-based commercialism pregnancy. If we each had the power to travel back in time and watch ourselves make major mistakes, would we? Or more realistically, could we look away?

But what stands out about episode 6, titled "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia," is not what it tells us about ourselves 20 years ago, but what it tells us about ourselves today. By showing what Marcia Clark went through during this trial we, in turn, see what countless women go through on a daily basis. It's more than just eye-opening. As the episode piles on constant body/appearance-shaming, snarky sexist comments, and public humiliations by the defense and two ex-husbands, you don't merely feel sorry for her; if you have any sense of empathy, you feel outraged.

Clark was known as a great prosecutor before this moment, winning the vast majority of cases that went to trial. As the country became fixated on the daily proceedings, thanks to a live TV feed, the papers, tabloids and newly burgeoning cable news industry saw the potential for an unexpected goldmine of ratings. Clark became an easy target for a simple reason few of us want to admit: because she was the only woman in the room.

What we see as the episode unfolds is unacceptable. There's just no other way to put it. Clark is trying to make it in a man's world at the high ranks of the American judicial system, and she's reminded on a near daily basis that she doesn't belong to the "good ole boys club." Even as she's checking out at a grocery store, the cashier picks up a box of tampons and says, "Gonna be a rough week for the defense!"

She has to stop the trial because she doesn't have child-care for the evening. Her ex-husband releases a nude picture of her taken on vacation many years ago. She becomes reactionary to the constant media snipping about her appearance and tries new hairstyles, only to get laughed at walking into the court room. As the daily tabloid headlines mocking her appearance start to pile up, her boss makes a point to tell her how disgusted he is with the headlines as well....but that he knows a few good stylists, too.

What's infuriating is that MEN. DON'T. GO. THROUGH. THIS.

(As highlighted by Australian news anchor Karl Stefanovic here.)

In an episode focused on double standards, the most striking moment is when Johnny Cochran is confronted by the press about domestic abuse allegations in his past. Clark stands to the side, hoping to see him experience some of the same personal embarrassment, only to watch him confidently shut them down for bringing up such impertinent history while a man is on trial for a brutal double murder, and snidely walking away. You don't have to be female to understand the emotion in her face afterwards. (Kudos to Sarah Paulson)

The beauty of this episode is that it quickly and coherently tears through any attempt to dismiss her experience as general weakness and ultra-PC sensitivities. Actress Sarah Paulson, who will most likely be recognized at the end-of-the-year awards ceremonies for this portrayal, explained to Terry Gross how her opinion of Clark changed as she approached the project. "My impressions of her now, after portraying her, are incredibly, vastly different," Paulson says. "I now hold her to be a very competent, complicated, strong, deep-thinking, quick-witted, quick-draw, wonderful creature."

Is it fair to call an hour of historical fictionalized television "art" or even "great art?" Some will argue no. But art is intertwined with humanities in academia for a reason; they both aim to teach us who we are, how we see ourselves, and even, at times, how we fool ourselves. "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia," does just that, and it does it remarkably well.

--Brian Paul Swenk

If you enjoy, please share and help me spread the word about Lonesome Banjo Chronicles.