If your knowledge of bluegrass is limited to what you’ve seen on TV and the silver screen, the mention of the frenetic Appalachian musical tradition will undoubtedly conjure images of barefoot banjo pluckers and jug blowers, backwoods minstrels with twisted, malformed features and vapid, beady eyes. Those who are acquainted with and involved in the ongoing evolution of the genre may celebrate some of these rustic stereotypes, but many certainly do not apply to the bluegrass blossoming in the 21st century.
Today, bluegrass comes in many forms, from jazz-tinged “gypsy” grass to hard-driving, neo-traditional “old-timey” grass. Bluegrass has become a mainstay in the jamband scene, a development the disciplined players of tight reels probably never foresaw. Geographical boundaries no longer restrain the sound of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and bluegrass bands can be found in every corner of the country. In the Rockies, the bluegrass tide is rising and the boisterous Random Canyon Growlers sit atop this furious wave of high-country picking.
Traditional music aficionados who reside in the intermountain West, the Random Canyon Growlers weave tight harmonies and fire energetic stringed salvos, pumping humor and heart into their throwback style. With a foot firmly planted in the realm of classic bluegrass, the group explores modern and period themes, singing the songs of western outlaws and the laments of unfortunate latter-day husbands who forgot to hide pornography. Clearly, the band embraces a playful attitude, but that jocularity is tempered by a darker side and an adherence to bluegrass fundamentalism.
The Random Canyon Growlers’ rollicking road show will roll into Bozeman on Thursday, Sept. 27. The band will perform at the Filling Station, following an opening set by Missoula’s own Lil’ Smokies. In anticipation of the performance, Matt Herron and Matt Donovan of the Random Canyon Growlers were kind enough to speak with the Exponent.
Exponent: Many people think of bluegrass as a static relic, a sound frozen in time. In reality, diversification and a confluence of styles are at the heart of modern bluegrass. Is the Growler sound moving forward or backward?
Donovan (Bass): We are thrilled to play more traditional bluegrass. Furthermore, we’ve been told our original material has a feel that’s way past our time. That’s one of the most positive pieces of feedback I can think of for a band attempting to pen original material while staying true to the roots of the genre.
Herron (Fiddle): As a band you never want to think of yourself as moving backward, even if the foundation of your style is based in a past era. The mere fact that you stand on a stage or play in a jam with people whose ages, hometowns, musical tastes, etc. vary immediately brings the diversification and confluence you mentioned. Each one of the Growlers brings their own background to the table and helps to advance the sound even when we cover classic Flat & Scruggs and Jimmy Martin.
E: Humor seems common in your songs. Is this a reflection of your personalities or simply a stylistic choice?
H: I think it’s because we’re having fun when we’re playing music together. Lyrics tend to be one piece of the musical puzzle, so as long as the harmonies and instrumentation are working, we could be singing about a variety of horrid stuff and still be having a good time.
E: Are most of your influences from days gone by or were you also inspired by the Newgrass greats of our day?
H: The ubiquitous, “We’re influenced by all styles of bluegrass.” If you were to hop in the van and drive with us to a gig, eventually Jamie (lead vocals/guitar) would throw on one of his mix tapes which encompasses everything from Monroe to Lonesome River Band to Tim O’Brien — everything we’d like to think our sound and musical interests represent. Lately there’s been a push to marry acoustic music to a jamband-type feel, but we tend to stop short of that.
D: I can’t speak to this very much since I don’t sing at all. I will say that the influences draw from much more than just the bluegrass harmony icons. I think one major influence we’ve had is busking, or playing in the streets. In that environment, sheer volume can be a very powerful element of the performance. Creating the most cohesive natural sound with no amplification is something we consistently develop.
E: You’re all men of the West these days. Is there a “Western” bluegrass style or is it all imported?
H: Regional influences have always had a role in bluegrass and acoustic music. One of the best ways to get a feel for these nuances is to attend bluegrass festivals in different parts of the country. Most festivals I attended as a kid on the east coast were sit-down affairs and rarely did the music stray far from traditional grass. When I moved to Tacoma, Wash. for college, I was lucky enough to be three miles away from the original site of Wintergrass. It was my first festival west of the Mississippi and it was my first wide exposure to all of the iterations of acoustic music like gypsy jazz and bands like Psychograss. Lines are more blurred than they used to be. Variety is a good thing.