Northern by Birth, Bluegrass at Heart
Hailing from Wisconsin, New York and Massachusetts, this bluegrass trio finds its sound in Nashville
Meet The Howlin' Brothers; these boys
Now, now, don't get bristled hairs if you're a Northerner — Jared Green, Ben Plasse and Ian Craft have been introduced that way before. Since moving to Nashville about eight years ago, they've gotten used to the occasional jabs about their Northern nature.
"It's in a lot of good humor," Green said.
Nashville has treated them well and they are, after all, a string trio of Yankees playing an Americana mix of bluegrass, blues, old-time and Dixieland jazz.
Bound by tunes, not blood, The Howlin' Brothers will swagger into European Street Café in San Marco Aug. 8 on their first visit to Jacksonville.
"Hang on, sorry, I gotta move away some. The music is getting loud here," Green said from the Winnipeg Folk Festival in Canada, where the band is booked for four sets over several days. The phone reception is spotty and he seems slightly distracted, but he happily chats about how much they love Nashville.
Hailing from Wisconsin, New York and Massachusetts, The Howlin' Brothers made their way South after meeting at Ithaca College, where they received classical and jazz training. Banjos and fiddles, though, were what captivated their hearts. It started out informally, with a jam here and a song played there, and they eventually formed a bluegrass band. Playing in a string band was "just a lot of fun," Green said.
"The music is simple, it's upbeat. It really enlightened me to play that kind of music."
They wanted more. Nashville seemed like the perfect place to immerse themselves in Southern musical culture, and Green said he can't overstate the city's role in the band's development.
"We've really learned a lot about old-time fiddle tunes and clawhammer banjo. I learned a lot about becoming a better guitar player, I learned how to play harmonica there, I learned how to dance. It's been a really awesome city to live in."
After starting out mostly bluegrass-oriented, being in Nashville has actually led to a broadened sound, Green said. With so many musicians around, the city offers exposure to a wealth of styles. They now incorporate a "less fancy, more hypnotic and really groovy" old-time music sound, like that of traditional mountain string bands, and much more blues.
Their biggest influences are folk music heroes and blues legends such as Doc Watson, John Hartford, Lead Belly and Muddy Waters, but like their contemporaries, Old Crow Medicine Show and Carolina Chocolate Drops, they aren't traditionalists.
"We love traditional music, but we like to put our own spin on it," he said. "A lot of music we're writing really doesn't even fit into bluegrass or old-time, necessarily. You know, I think music is supposed to evolve."
Their national debut album, "Howl," was released in March on Readymade Records, which was started last year by Brendan Benson of The Raconteurs. Stylistically, it roams across the American musical landscape from the Appalachian hills to the Louisiana bayou to the Mississippi Delta. Despite the shifts, the album doesn't seem disjointed. It manages to keep a common thread, which Green credited to the distinctive sounds of the banjo and fiddle, and to their efforts to "make each song their own."
Original tunes are interspersed with some familiar traditional songs, including "Take This Hammer" and "Boatman's Dance," as well as with a cover of the John Hartford steamboat song, "Julia Belle Swain." Warren Haynes of The Allman Brothers Band and Gov't Mule is a guest musician on the album's opener, "Big Time," a rousing, bluesy stomp marked by Haynes' slide guitar and Green's wailing harmonica. The first line has an autobiographical ring to it: "Goin' down South, gonna have a real big time."
"Fun" is the word that keeps coming up in conversation with Green. It's the driving force behind The Howlin' Brothers.
"Music should be fun. I mean, if you're not having fun, well — you probably should start having fun," Green said, laughing. He seemed to realize that what he's saying is overly simple. Then again, sometimes people need to be reminded to have a rollin', foot-stompin' good time, and The Howlin' Brothers are happy to give audiences a nudge.
"We're trying to put across a good feeling," he said. "We're just trying to keep it real, I guess. … And to get people to dance."