Get To Know The 'String-Band Pop' Of Nashville's Front Country | Nashville Public Radio

Get To Know The 'String-Band Pop' Of Nashville's Front Country

Apr 5, 2017
Originally published on April 5, 2017 6:26 pm

One day in late February, the five members of Front Country were warming up for their record release show at the renowned bluegrass club the Station Inn, in their new home base of Nashville, Tenn. They'd never played most of these songs live before.

It wasn't a given that these musicians would wind up in anything remotely resembling a bluegrass band. Singer Melody Walker got into world music and belted out roots-rock. Bassist Jeremy Darrow studied jazz. Leif Karlstrom trained as a classical violinist, and still prefers that title to "fiddle player." Mandolinist Adam Roszkiewicz studied classical guitar at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

The actual guitarist in the band, Jacob Groopman, did his share of exploring after college, too.

"I was in an Afrobeat group for about five years, touring around in this 10-piece kind of hippie Afrobeat band," Groopman says.

In the bluegrass world, musicians tend to define themselves by their relationships to tradition — specifically, the tradition of high-and-lonesome singing and a hard-driving sound. There are regional variations from Virginia to Colorado. The West Coast has its own freewheeling tradition, and that's where Front Country started out: at a monthly jam in San Francisco. Then its members heard about a band contest at a bluegrass festival.

"And we ended up winning that band competition," Walker says. "The very next day, I made a website for the band because I thought maybe people will be Googling Front Country at that point, possibly."

From that point on, Front Country was a serious band. The group made a mixtape reimagining songs by Don Henley, King Crimson and the indie-pop band tUnE-yArDs.

Front Country does play traditional tunes on the new album, like the Carter Family's "The Storms Are On The Ocean" — though Roszkiewicz admits their arrangement makes it sort of unrecognizable.

"It's not so much to ruin it on principle with the rock music," he laughs. "We might be doing things differently, but at the heart of it, it's just songs, good songs we like that we can get behind."

Most of the new material, though, is original. Walker is the band's primary songwriter, and for the album, she submitted 20 songs to her bandmates for a vote. One, called "Good Looking Young People," seemed an especially unlikely candidate.

"When I wrote it, I had an iPad drum machine app that I was using," she explains. "So I had this beat that was kind of this super 808-sounding thing... Like, very Phil Collins, 'In the Air Tonight.' "

The group decided to keep the rhythmic ideas and ditch the drum machine. And while Front Country's members are more than capable of using traditional techniques on their instruments, they often choose not to.

"We're always trying to do things we've never done before on our instruments," Roszkiewicz says. "I'll be listening to the song, we'll be working on the song and I'll hear a synth line."

All of the musicians in Front Country also actually listen to, and respect, music made with beats, samples and electronic effects.

"I think sometimes, when people dismiss pop, one of the things they're dismissing is the craft aspect of it. Because obviously bluegrass and string-band music requires an enormous amount of craftsmanship," Darrow says. "I think one of the things that we put on display is [that] rather than an element to be dismissed, the craft of pop music is just as intricate as it is in any other style. And maybe that's a little clearer to see when we're playing it on wooden instruments."

At this point, they realize it's probably a stretch to call what they're doing bluegrass at all. String-band pop is more like it.

Front Country's new album, Other Love Songs, will be out April 7.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In the bluegrass world, musicians usually define themselves by how traditional they are, specifically the tradition of high and lonesome singing with a hard driving sound. The string band Front Country does things a little differently, and with their latest music they're trying some new things for a bluegrass group. Jewly Hight of member station WPLN reports.

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: The five members of Front Country are warming up for their record release show at renowned bluegrass club The Station Inn in their new home base of Nashville.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No?

HIGHT: They've never played most of these songs live before.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That's the only part, though. That's it. All right, let's do it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Two, three, four.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRONT COUNRTY SONG)

HIGHT: It wasn't a given that these musicians would wind up in anything remotely resembling a bluegrass band. Bassist Jeremy Dero studied jazz. Leif Karlstrom trained as a classical violinist and still prefers that title to fiddle player. Mandolinist Adam Roszkiewicz also took a left turn from his musical education.

ADAM ROSZKIEWICZ: I went to school at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and studied classical guitar.

HIGHT: The actual guitarist in the band, Jacob Groopman, did his share of exploring after college, too.

JACOB GROOPMAN: I was in a Afrobeat group for about five years, touring around in this, like, 10-piece kind of hippie Afrobeat band.

HIGHT: Likewise, singer Melody Walker got into world music and belted out roots-rock. But bluegrass happened to be a musical interest they all shared. It brought most of them together at a monthly jam in San Francisco. Then they heard about a band contest at a bluegrass festival.

MELODY WALKER: And we ended up winning that band competition. And the very next day I made a website for the band (laughter) because I thought...

GROOPMAN: We barely had a name.

WALKER: ...Maybe people will be Googling Front Country at that point, possibly.

HIGHT: From that point on they were a serious band.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRONT COUNTRY SONG, "BIZNESS")

HIGHT: The group made a mixtape reimagining songs by Don Henley, King Crimson and the indie pop band tUnE-yArDs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BIZNESS")

FRONT COUNTRY: (Singing) If I represent the one that did this to you, then can away the part that represents the thing that's got you.

HIGHT: Front Country does play traditional tunes like the Carter Family song on the new album. Adam Roszkiewicz admits their arrangement makes "The Storms Are On The Ocean" sort of unrecognizable.

ROSZKIEWICZ: It's not so much to ruin it on principle with the rock music. You know, it's like, we might be doing things differently, but at the heart of it it's just good songs that we like and that we can get behind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STORMS ARE ON THE OCEAN")

FRONT COUNTRY: (Singing) Oh, who's going to shoe your pretty little feet? Who's going to glove your little hand? Who's going to kiss your ruby red lips when I'm in a foreign land? The storms are on the ocean.

HIGHT: Most of the new material, though, is original. Melody Walker is the band's primary songwriter, and for the album she submitted 20 songs to her band mates for a vote. One called "Good Looking Young People" seemed an especially unlikely candidate.

WALKER: When I wrote it, I had a - like, a iPad drum machine app that I was using. And so I had this beat that was kind of like this...

ROSZKIEWICZ: Super 808-sounding thing.

WALKER: Yeah, it was like very Phil Collins, like, you know, "In The Air Tonight."

HIGHT: The group decided to keep the rhythmic ideas and ditch the drum machine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD LOOKING YOUNG PEOPLE")

FRONT COUNTRY: (Singing) Just look around you, nobody looks the same. Just look around here, it's a young man's game. Good looking young people we are. Good looking young people we are.

HIGHT: Adam Roszkiewicz and his band mates are more than capable of using traditional techniques on their instruments. They often choose not to.

ROSZKIEWICZ: We're always trying to do things we've never done before on our instruments. So I'll be listening to the song, we'll be working on the song and I'll hear a synth line.

HIGHT: And he'll translate that pattern to mandolin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DON'T WANNA DIE ANGRY")

FRONT COUNTRY: (Singing) Every time we touch it feels like the first night, and every time we kiss it feels like the last rite (ph).

HIGHT: All the members of Front Country, including bassist Jeremy Darrow, actually listen to and respect music made with beats, samples and electronic effects.

JEREMY DARROW: I think sometimes when people dismiss pop, one of the things they're just dismissing is the craft aspect of it, you know, because obviously bluegrass and string band music requires an enormous amount of craftsmanship. I think one of the things that we put on display is rather than an element to be dismissed, the craft of pop music is just as intricate as it is in any other style. And maybe that's a little clearer to see when we're playing it on wooden instruments.

HIGHT: At this point they realize it's probably a stretch to call what they're doing bluegrass at all. String band pop is more like it. For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF SOMETHING BREAKS")

FRONT COUNTRY: (Singing) 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. And if I was a sorcerer, and if I could... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.