Faithfully mirroring its Western North Carolina home base, the band Town Mountain blends traditional and progressive elements. “We play bluegrass, but we are all influenced by a much broader scope of material than just bluegrass,” says banjoist/vocalist Jesse Langlais.
Town Mountain releases a new album this month, titled Leave The Bottle, featuring Langlais along with mandolinist Phil Barker, Chapel Hill fiddler Bobby Britt, lead vocalist/guitarist Robert Greer, and newest member, Jon Stickley on bass.
They’ve written new songs about running from the law, songs about being on the road (involving the law), songs about love (more often being on the losing end of it), songs about the rat-race. The band has been known to address serious issues — land use, health insurance — but Langlais likes his bluegrass on the light side. “People often take bluegrass music very seriously,” he says. “It’s okay to ease up and crack a joke every once in awhile, make light of yourself and of things around you.”
Langlais wrote the album’s toe-tapping title track about missing his family on the road. “I actually brought that to the band as just a waltz, and in rehearsal one day we had the idea of switching halfway through the chorus to that 2/4 honky tonk beat,” he recalls.
“Up The Ladder” has an old school rock’n’roll flavor. “That song is every bit Chuck Berry and Bill Monroe,” laughs Langlois. “Actually the song, ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ was hugely influential on Bill Monroe, so Chuck Berry had a hand in shaping bluegrass music’s sound. It’s hard to say that one American music doesn’t directly influence another, because they’re all so intertwined, whether it’s country, bluegrass, jazz, rock, folk, they carry similar elements.”
“Four Miles” is a blistering instrumental written by fiddler Britt. “He’s way into fiddle music,” says Langlais. “Fiddle music in the states is directly influenced by Scottish and Irish fiddling, so that song bears some of those torches. We’re able to capture some of that essence, but with a modern twist.
“If you’re playing an instrumental song, everybody usually gets their try at the melody, and then the next time around you improvise over the melody, which is exactly what jazz does,” the banjoist explains. “Really there’s a lot of crossover. A lot of jazz tunes have been introduced into the bluegrass repertoire, and are now almost standards. One song called ‘Limehouse Blues,’ I know from Django Reinhardt, but in Asheville that’s one of the big jam songs. So jazz and bluegrass have similarities. A lot of the progressive stuff is really just jazz music on stringed instruments. Players branch out and listen to more than what they play.”
Langlais is a Maine native whose unlikely entry into the roots music world was through the banjo playing of Jerry Garcia — specifically an album Garcia recorded in 1975 with David Grisman, Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements and John Kahn, called Old And In The Way. “As soon as I popped that in and heard the banjo, I was like, ‘Man, I’ve gotta do that, I want that,” he recalls. “No other banjo player out there sounds like him.
“I would say Jerry was more on the traditional side. He started playing folk music in the [San Francisco] Bay area in the late ’50s, early ’60s, and a lot of that folk music was derivative of the Stanley Brothers’ style of playing, and banjo players from back east, Western North Carolina, east Tennessee, southwest Virginia.
Old And In The Way was a gateway to bluegrass for fans of the [Grateful] Dead bandleader and ’60s rock’n’roll in general, according to Langlais. “I’ve spoken to many people who had Jerry Garcia kind of show them the way to bluegrass,” he says. “As soon as I was able to say, ‘This is bluegrass,’ I started listening to the greats — you know, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, The Stanley Brothers, and didn’t get off that train for a long time. Tried to wrap my head around traditional bluegrass for awhile.”
“I really appreciate folks like Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka, the more progressive side of things. But I would say that J.D. Crowe, who is second generation bluegrass, is probably my biggest banjo influence.”
Langlais can’t pinpoint exactly why the banjo moved him. “The way that the instrument sounded spoke to me. It’s hard to say why,” he says. “Maybe because it was almost so far away from what I was used to, which would be all other forms of music other than bluegrass.”
He found a banjo teacher close by in Maine. “Fortunately right down the road from where I grew up was this guy named Bill Smith. Great musician — he could play anything with strings and play it really well. For six months I took lessons from him,” Langlais says. “I got a banjo and got into the scene up there a little bit, and soon realized that I wanted to move down to where the music was part of the culture, and part of the life.”
Langlais met Robert Greer shortly after moving to Asheville, and the two began playing music together casually in 2003. In 2005 they started Town Mountain. “With the addition of our mandolin player, Phil Barker, four years ago, the band really started to define its sound,” Langlais says. “We had a band that could do something, and we wanted to take it a little more seriously.”
“People have come and gone in the band, but they’ve always come in as friends and left as friends,” Langlais claims. “That’s a big part of Town Mountain, the fact that we are a band of friends, a band of brothers, we always say. The friendship is really what makes a band work. There’s just more to it than the music. It’s being out there and creating something with people that you’re close to. We’re all very fortunate to play music for a living with our best friends.