“I’m just a southern boy a little too far from my home,” sings Phil Barker, mandolinist for the bluegrass powerhouse that is Town Mountain.
I walked into The Station Inn to the familiar cacophony of chatter and traditional country music on Wednesday night. The event of the evening was Asheville bluegrassers, Town Mountain. I really didn’t know much about them, other than occasionally seeing their name on festival lineups, and that they’d just opened up a Red Rocks show for Tyler Childers.
One of the only tables available was where I last sat to watch the lovely Kelsey Waldon perform- right in front of my favorite pillar in the “back.” This time around, I noticed the subtle interior decoration The Station Inn now displayed for the holidays. The old weathered pillar was wrapped in green tinsel, same with the others, though of course some sporting red. The backdrop of the stage was lined in Christmas lights, further illuminating The Station Inn sign. Your modest decorative efforts did not go unnoticed, Station Inn staffers.
Yazoo pitchers of all degrees of consumption scattered on tables along with pizza boxes and plastic cups. It was a lukewarm and growing crowd. It was then I noticed the thermostat that was attached to the very pillar somewhat obstructing my view. The mischievous 13-year-old in me thought about raising it five or six degrees- have the boys really sweat this one out.
I soon spied an open table, smack dab in the middle of two groups of people. I asked if the spot was available, and the move was made- and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t my worst decision of the night. The table jerked around in an uneven off-kilter dance, making splashing waves in my cup of beer like an angry storming sea of malted barley. I was stuck tight with little to no room to breathe before the Godsend that is Sarah B. came and escorted me to her table in the corner nearest the entrance. I felt like a chess piece making my way across the board. Perhaps a rook.
After my seating shenanigans, the quintet that is Town Mountain hit the stage with little to no fanfare, and kicked into gear from the get go. Robert Greer, the guitarist and seemingly premiere front man, whirled through the opening tunes with power and grit. The band sliced through song after song with killer country-fried harmonies, volleying solos to one another like a game of ping-pong. Banjoist Jesse Langlais, what with his calm, cool, and collected demeanor, would rifle off face-melting solos, and as part of any tight band does, seamlessly slip right back into the groove. And the same to be said with Bobby Britt on fiddle, and Barker on mandolin. As the backbone of any band, Zach Smith held down bass for the boys. Miles Miller, drummer for Sturgill Simpson, held down snare duties.
Hoots and hollers shot from all corners of the room, as Town Mountain got down and dirty with their Honky Tonkin’ bluegrass. At times they had a quality that reminded me of The Band, what with their down-home, of the earth chops, especially with singing duties sometimes being designated amongst them. At first listen, you may just clump them in the bluegrass genre, but really they encompass a broader spectrum than that: traditional country, Honky Tonk rock, and boogie woogie bluegrass all melted together.
During the middle of Barker’s vocal-led “North of Cheyenne,” I looked behind me and saw Jim Lauderdale slink through the door in his black slicker, peering around the wall as if not to disturb anything. He stood directly behind me watching, until the gang finished the tune and over he walked to get settled.
Greer then said the magic words: “Dickie Betts wrote this next tune.”
“OH HELL YEAH”! Yelled a gravelly masculine voice, along with other vocal noises of acceptance.
After “Long Time Gone,” the room then went quiet, as the guitarist opted for a somber solo number. “If you weren’t depressed before this song, well you will be now,” Greer said, before laying into the refrain of, “You can play every game/But you can’t win ‘em all.”
Then it was time for guests. The band had a number of guests come and go that included Lauderdale, Kyle Tuttle, Harry Clark, and Adam Chaffins. Lauderdale cracked all kinds of jokes about the guys when he was around them when they were younger. “I used to see these guys with empty cases of beer around them, and now all I see are empty containers of kombucha. They’re healthy, growing boys. This next tune is called ‘When The Apples Are Just Turning Ripe.’”
A few people cleared out after the first set, and a few more trickled out during the second with the Wednesday night blues, but the plenty that stuck around got the full gamut of Town Mountain. Those that remained fell deeper and deeper into their many-stringed spell. Select tables that once had sociable patrons, both residents and tourists, were abandoned, as were the beer bottles, pitchers, and leftover pizza scraps they once held dear.
The band closed out night one with Barker leading the drawn out opening and closing vocal for “Lawdog,” that drew the final hoots, hollers, and applause to end the night.
“Round and round, here we go again.”
SOLD OUT reads the hand-written sign on the front door.
And boy was that the truth. Night Two was a whole other beast. What was a modest yet excitable crowd on Wednesday, was a bustling madhouse void of walkways on Thursday. Lines, hoards, and clusters of people filled all avenues. This time there were no tables or seats to be had unless you were part of the designated parties already assigned. While I waited in line for my crisp beverage, I scoured and scoured until realizing the bar stool in front of the napkin and Tabasco tray would be my only option. I perched upon the black leather stool, getting as comfortable as one can get with hungry half-cocked patrons woozily waiting for pizza nine inches in front of you. “Jordan! Jordan your pizza is ready!” The voice in the sky would say. You would’ve thought they’d just been selected for The Price Is Right with their level of excitement making their way up to the window, weaving through others for their savory pie.
While messy-faced grubbers frequently asked me to dole out napkins, I noticed one of the night’s very special guests next to me in a denim jacket- Billy Strings. Something told me a lot of these people knew he’d be appearing tonight.
The band fired through what I believe to be the same set as the night before, which was great, especially for someone like me who wasn’t all that familiar with their music. I found myself singing along (in my head) to a handful of numbers, still fresh on the brain from a night’s rest earlier. “Shut your mouth and get up the ladder.”
Something was different about this set, and it was throwing me off until I finally figured it out- Jesse, hatless the night before, decided to rock a green trucker hat this time around. You can’t be throwing a curveball like that to someone trying to familiarize themselves with you, Jesse! (but seriously you’re my favorite banjoist at this present moment)
The first guest of Night Two was dobro master and all around stringed magician, Jerry Douglas. From the minute he got up there he was nothing but smiles, having himself one hell of a time. “Bluegrass is alive and well with these guys.”
Jerry helped bring the set to a close, and left the room at max capacity hollers, and frequent bell rings from the kitchen. It was then I had to up and leave my duties as human napkin dispenser to make sure my car wasn’t towed, and to catch a little bit of the Cowboys-Bears game. (Fantasy Football reasons)
I came back and quickly took a seat along the wall by the entrance, not taking chances on being seatless. It was a short wait, as again with little to no fanfare the guys took their positions, ready for the final round. “I hear a lot of shh-ing out there, but for real the PA is at max capacity right now, so…” Before long, the boys were at it again, up the creek with(out) a paddle.
Before long, arguably the guest of the night was brought on stage, to perhaps the loudest applause of the night- Sir William Strings.
“Dust in a Baggy!” was shouted, among other things.
Billy modestly took the stage, and proceeded to tear down the roof with his thunderous vocals and lightning pickin’. It’s still not verified that smoke did not in fact rise from the neck of his guitar. All at once, he had the crowd turn into a sea of lifted hands holding phones, donning wide drunken grins. The band shook their heads in disbelief as they ripped and roared through more high-energy bluegrass numbers, giving the crowd exactly what they wanted. After Billy thanked the crowd and band, (pretty sure he did, it was so damn loud) he made his way back into the abyss of onlookers. He received a standing ovation.
“Man it’s fiddle fever”, I heard a guy say as he hiked his leg up over the small railing and into his seat. Greer brought up a second fiddle player to stand along side Britt, and they dug into it, dueling fiddle style. And just when I thought fiddle fever had reached a high, on comes a third fiddle player, the first female of the night to grace the stage, and it was, to put in layman’s terms, so rad. Song after song, guest after guest, Town Mountain finished the night strong.
If you’re playing TWO consecutive nights at the illustrious Station Inn, with a parade of special guests no less, you know you’re doing something right. Each and every member of the band played with fire, and there was no weak link. Town Mountain proved, and has proven, they are in the top tier of bluegrass artists in the 21st century.
Town Mountain was likely one of the final back-to-back bands to slay The Station Inn this decade. They helped close another chapter, another decade, at a Music City institution, and another chapter in their own legacy. There’s no telling how Town Mountain will be reflected on in 20 or 30 years, but at this point and time, in this day and age, they’re a sure fire reminder bluegrass is alive and well.