Front Country Takes Varied Musical Path to a Winning Season
What do Tony Trischka, David Bowie,Trinidadsteel drums,Afro-funk,MississippiJohn Hurt, the rhythms of ska, Michael Hedges, Bill Monroe, and Béchamel sauce have in common?
They’re a small fraction of the wide-ranging musical influences on a new young six-pack of a Bluegrass band who’s turning some heads from an unlikely home base: San Francisco. (To be technically precise, the Béchamel sauce didn’t influence their musical style, but they do have an original song named after it.) Front Country will take front-and-center on Saturday, August 3 at the Beartrap Summer Festival.
Front Country banjo player Jordan Klein grew up inFair Lawn,New Jersey–not exactly aBluegrassmecca, except that his family had a neighbor named Tony Trischka: “By a random stroke of luck,” Klein says, “I got to know Tony, outside of music, when I was a teenager. And when I was 19 and decided to learn the banjo, I called him up. He lent me a banjo and got me started with a few basic roll patterns. So, blame him for one more banjo player in this world.”
On the surface, guitarist/vocalist Jacob Groopman seems to have more traditionalBluegrasscredentials; he lists Doc Watson, George Shuffler, and Tony Rice as his favorite guitarists. But he segues without a hitch into his favorite jamming material: Jimmy Page, Jerry Garcia, and Robbie Robertson, for starters. InCalifornia, there’s been no shortage of bands for Groopman to jam with–DonnerMountain(Bluegrass), Jug Free America (Jug), Albino (Afrobeat), and The Real Nasty (Rock).
Front Country vocalist and songwriter Melody Walker remembers a childhood in the arms of Bluegrass–her parents and their friends jammed all weekend at the annual West Tennessee Strawberry Festival “singing 70s revival style Bluegrass and Southern rock,” Walker says. “I knew all those tunes by heart before I even knew who wrote them.”
Then, atHumboldtStateUniversity, she took on the world–musically speaking. She studied and played West African dance, world fusion, and 20th Century Art Song with classical voice training.
Leif Karlstrom studied classical violin as a youngster and earned a performance degree at theUniversityofOregon, but changed direction when he sat in on a folk/Bluegrass jam session at Sam Bond’s Garage inEugene. Bassist Zach Sharpe’s tastes range from Flatt & Scruggs and Jimmy Martin to a wide range ofCaliforniafunk bands includingTowerofPower.
The unusually wide host of influences for aBluegrassband seems to be working in their favor.Walkerwon the prestigious Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at this year’s MerleFest. In June, Front Country became only the third band ever to win the band competitions at both Rockygrass and Telluride. And mandolinist Adam Roszkiewicz was nominated for a Grammy for his work on the album “Americana” with the Modern Mandolin Quartet.
In addition to earning a center-stage spot at Telluride next summer, they’ll be recording an album in the meantime.
Groopman says the band members had an idea, from the beginning (which was just in 2011), that good things would follow musically: “We knew right from the start that we had something awesome, and I think that is in large part because everyone in this band is always actively listening to the other members. When you really listen to your bandmates you’re able to musically interact in ways that often produce great things for listeners.
“We try to bring a modern edge to what we’re doing, and challenge ourselves to stay away from the super traditional material.”