Town Mountain explore new musical ground on 'New Freedom Blues'

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Rating: 7/10

Bluegrass bands typically sort into two camps. There are the groups who hew closely to tradition, rarely venturing far from the Bill Monroe/Flatt & Scruggs toybox. Then there are the progressive bluegrass bands, who push the genre into new directions. For the majority of their career, Asheville's Town Mountain has been pretty comfortably in the former camp. As a live act, one I've seen numerous times at Americanafest, they're dynamic, but they’re not a group that had brought a lot of uniqueness to the bluegrass table. That is changing with the release of their new album, New Freedom Blues, out Oct. 26.

In the album's press release, banjo player Jesse Langlais acknowledges the change in direction for Town Mountain, stating “we took the songs at their face value in the studio this time, as opposed to trying to take a song and make it fit inside certain bluegrass parameters. It morphed into this idea that we should be playing the songs for what they are as opposed to what we thought they should be.”

To help Town Mountain with this transition, they brought in some friends. The first was Portland's Caleb Klauder, who has been a mainstay of the Pacific Northwest's Roots scene for years, to produce New Freedom Blues. Another addition was drummer, and Sturgill Simpson collaborator, Miles Miller, whose percussion gave the new songs a fuller sound and let the band more fully explore rockabilly, country, and old time sounds.

The final piece of the collaboration puzzle was Kentucky-based songwriter Tyler Childers. The Americana Music Association's 2018 Emerging Artist of the Year co-wrote one song for New Freedom Blues, “Down Low”, and lent his voice to the song as well. It's by far the biggest departure for Town Mountain, with a rootsy, rock instrumental that perfectly matches Childers' raw vocals.

Another change in direction for Town Mountain is that the fairly apolitical group gets a bit topical on a couple of the album's track. While not as politically vocal as artists like Brandi Carlile or Jason Isbell, Town Mountain gets their point across on tracks like “Life and Debt.” Certainly money troubles are a ripe lyrical vein for bluegrass artists, but Town Mountain takes it a step further with lyrics like “the banker looked and he shook his head, said the bank's broke too ain't got no bread. All the money's in the politicians' hands.”

More topical is “Witch Trials.” While technically telling the tale of a 1970 Tuscon, Arizona teacher who was fired for “promoting witchcraft” in her classroom, the songs lyrics sound a lot more like a description of 2018, where the phrase “witch hunt” has become the constant drumbeat of a certain Twitter-loving politician. Lyrics like “just let your neighbors make your mind up for ya” and “believe everything you hear, all of what you read. Don't worry about the facts, ain't no need” could just as easily be about social media's echo chamber, a concept that was likely not lost on Town Mountain when they chose the subject.

For those who enjoyed Town Mountain's more traditional bluegrass sound, there's still enough of it there to keep you happy. The instrumental “Tar Heal” is a by the books fiddle and banjo driven barnburner and the album's title track, minus the persistent kick drum, is a fairly straightforward bluegrass number as well.

Six albums in, it was time for Town Mountain to grow as a band or risk stagnation. While changing up your sound is always a risk, its one that has paid off for the band, knocking down the artificial walls of tradition that enclosed them and allowing them to go where the music takes them.

Town Mountain will be touring to support New Freedom Blues throughout November, before joining Tyler Childers as support for several of his December dates. Here's where you can catch Town Mountain:
Nov 1 – Louisville, KY – Zanzabar
Nov 2 – Indianapolis, IN – Duke's Indy
Nov 3 – Peninsula, OH – G.A.R. Hall
Nov 4 – Newport, KY – Southgate House Revival
Nov 9 – Roanoke, VA – Soaring Ridge Craft Brewers
Nov 10 – Leesburg, VA – Tally Ho Theater
Nov 17 – Huntington, WV – The V Club
Nov 30 – Greer, SC – The Spinning Jenny
Dec 1 – Winston Salem, NC – The Ramkat
Dec 6 – Harrisonburg, VA – The Clementine Cafe
Dec 8 – Virginia Beach, VA – Zeiders American Dream Theater
Dec 11 – Tulsa, OK – Cain's Ballroom *
Dec 12 – New Braunfels, TX – Gruene Hall *
Dec 13 – New Braunfels, TX – Gruene Hall *
Dec 15 – Oklahoma City, OK – Tower Theatre *
Dec 16 – Dallas, TX – The Rustic *
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Supporting Tyler Childers