In a city known for its wind, deep dish pizza, and beloved Cubs (among maybe a few other things), Chicago caters to a diverse and ever-evolving music scene.
Shy of two decades ago, six musically inclined gentlemen got together (maybe over deep dish pizza and a Cubs game) to make something out of nothing, and form what we know now as Henhouse Prowlers.
Today, the band is a mainstay in the Midwest bluegrass scene and far beyond, and their innovative use of instrumentation and storytelling allow their music to blossom well beyond the country’s borders- case in point, their non-profit mission, Bluegrass Ambassadors.
The program is a music education outreach initiative designed to dissolve the boundaries of culture, country, and communication to schoolchildren as well as festival goers. It’s an amazing initiative that further conveys how much the quartet values the universally impactful potential of folk and bluegrass music.
The band – made up of Chris Dollar (guitar and lead vocal); Jon Goldfine (bass and vocals); Jake Howard (mandolin and vocals); and Ben Wright (banjo and vocals) – have been hard at work writing, recording, and preparing to release their seventh studio album, The Departure, which dropped last Friday, May 21st.
And by God does it deliver.
With preceding singles such as “Short Branch Saloon” and “Heartbreak and Devastation,” the album offers an array of endearing storytelling and harmonic hooks, all harnessing expert instrumentation and unique arrangements. This Memorial Day Weekend the band will be having their album release show at City Winery Chicago, and will follow it up with headlining gigs at The John Hartford Memorial festival in Indiana and a christening gig at Nashville’s legendary Station Inn.
I was able to hop on a phone call with Goldfine to discuss the new album, the excitement of upcoming (non-livestream) shows, and much more.
I was hoping you could discuss the origin of the Henhouse Prowlers and how you all came together.
The band started almost 17 years ago. We were originally a six piece band, including myself on bass, our banjo player, and four other guys we knew from the Chicago music scene. We all played for other bands of various genres, but we wanted a side bluegrass band. We put it together and we started playing Tuesdays at a hole in the wall bar in our neighborhood, and after a few months, people started showing up. Eventually, the band took over all of our other bands, and we started going on tours and spreading out more nationally…and this just became “the band.”
So your new album, ‘The Departure,’ just dropped a week ago. What was the overall process like, and what was the inspiration behind it?
The general inspiration was that we were due to put out a new album. The last one was put out in 2017, so last March we set aside two weeks to spend in a recording studio in Bloomington, Indiana, which is where our guitarist Chris lives. We found a studio there we liked and got one day of recording done, and planned to meet up the next two weeks to finish – but then the whole world shut down, so that didn’t happen. The songs were picked out, and after a few months went by we re-gathered at the studio and got the album recorded. We had twelve days to just focus on making the record; between our busy schedules with tours and families, this wasn’t possible before, but we’re really happy with how it turned out.
What made you guys choose the little church studio in Bloomington?
We knew we wanted to do it in Bloomington to keep Chris close to home, as he’s a new father. We also thought a Bloomington studio would be a lot cheaper than a studio in Chicago. We looked at a few studios, but the church just felt right – we got along really well with the engineer, and the setting of a hundred year old church next to an old cemetery was just really cool.
How does this album differ from previous releases of yours?
I don’t want to say anything that’s going to disrespect any of the musicians on our previous albums, but the main difference is that this is the first album we’ve made with our current lineup. Chris, our guitarist and Jake, our mandolin player have been new additions since our last release. Jake’s a Berklee grad, and a high caliber musician, which really shows in his playing. The lineup has changed over the years, but we have great chemistry, and I feel like it shows in this record.
How does the songwriting process work within the band?
We all write on our own, and bring songs to the band. Once we’ve all brought something we have a workshop section, and consider a variety of changes, whether it’s tempo, key, chord changes, lyrics, etc. The person that brings the song to the group has the final say, but whether or not a song makes it onto the album is a group decision.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing and/or recording the album?
Hmm…it’s funny, but it was kind of a breeze. During the three month gap in recording, we wanted to pick and arrange the songs for the album before getting back in the studio, but a lot of our workshop sessions had to happen over Zoom. We couldn’t really play our instruments, but we could talk through lyrics and possible arrangements. That was usually just the four of us, but occasionally the albums producer John Rice was on – but we wanted to keep the number of people in the studio to a minimum. When it came time to mix, we had to mix over Zoom. While it was a challenge, if I have to call it that, it was honestly pleasant.
How important is the order and arrangement of songs on the album, and do you find that aspect challenging?
There’s a lot of thought that goes into it. You want to have a good flow, and you don’t want the two fastest songs next to each other, same as you don’t want two slow songs or waltzes next to each other. We have four lead singers, so I try to keep each singer’s individual songs together in the track listing. There’s a lot of factors that play into it.
I see you guys are playing the Blue Ox Festival in August. What is it about the atmosphere of these smaller bluegrass and Americana-oriented festivals that makes them so special? Do you anticipate the same magic returning to a sort of “normal” society?
The people that are going are really excited to go. There’s a lot of pent up energy from both performers and the audience. We actually played a festival in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania yesterday, which was a different kind of crowd from Blue Ox, but you can see the audience is hungry for live music.
I also see you’re playing with banjo extraordinaire Tony Trischka at Blue Ox. How did that come to be?
We used to share a booking agent with Tony, and we played a gig with him in Michigan back in 2018. He’s a legend in the bluegrass world, fun to play with, and a huge talent on stage.
What are one or two pinnacle moments for the Henhouse Prowlers?
Going back to 2010, we won the Rockygrass contest, which was big for a young-ish band. That was a thrill; winning that gave us instant credibility in a way. We also have a not-for-profit organization connected to the band too [Bluegrass Ambassadors], so we’ve done a lot of touring internationally through the U.S. state departments cultural exchange programs. Our first American-music-abroad tour was through four countries in Africa; auditioning and being selected for that, then going on tour has really shaped us musically and as human beings.
How long have you guys been doing that?
The first tour happened in 2013. We’ve been to about 27 countries globally, and about 20 of those were through state department programs.
Any plans for the latter-half of 2021 with the Bluegrass Ambassadors?
Yeah! A lot of what we did over the past year was work on creating a remote-learning program. We call it the Bluegrass Ambassador’s Field Trip; at this point, a lot of learning has gone back to being in person, but we believe it will still be a valid and useful program, especially for schools that might not otherwise have access or funding.
What’s on the band’s agenda post-album release?
We’re going to be down in Nashville in June at the Station Inn, which will be our first time playing there. That same weekend we’re headlining the John Hartford Memorial Festival in Indiana, then there’s a handful of festivals, and things are still kind of trickling in. There are a lot of big bluegrass festivals like Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival happening, so we’re hoping that pans out. We’re just hoping that in the next year we can get back to national tours.