Two Schools of Bluegrass & The Bottle Rockets
Two bluegrass currents cross Capitol Hill this month, and while they might be heading in different directions, both flow from a wellspring of fancy picking and strong songs.
The band FY5, which plays the Hill Center on March 9, is billed as “new school Americana.” The five players in the group are firmly grounded in bluegrass ways, but most of their songs are new and are as likely to be mid-tempo as pedal-to-the-metal fast.
“We definitely cut our teeth on traditional bluegrass, and I find myself listening to that more than anything,” said banjo and pedal steel guitar player Aaron Youngberg. “But we’re not a traditional bluegrass band.”
The departure wasn’t deliberate, he said, but was dictated by the group’s original songs. For example, banjo doesn’t seem right for some of the tunes, so Youngberg switches off to the pedal steel, a mainstay of country music but definitely not bluegrass. That approach enhances the songs rather than forcing them into the confines of a genre.
FY5’s songs feature first-rate musicianship, but they also shine from their lyrical merits. One of the strongest is “Nebraska,” written by singer and guitarist Mike Finders. It tells a story of settlers on the Great Plains from a woman’s point of view, based on journals that Finders read.
There’s nothing newfangled about Only Lonesome, which comes to Mr. Henry’s on March 30. The band’s website bills it as “Old school, caveman bluegrass” with an emphasis on the hard-driving sound that was popular in Baltimore and DC in the 50s and 60s.
Sam Guthridge grew up listening to the Ray Davis bluegrass show on WAMU, and picked up the banjo after starting as a country guitarist. A few years back he was hosting a monthly bluegrass night at SOVA coffeehouse on H Street. He recruited Neel Brown (guitar), Stefan Custodi (bass), John Seebach (mandolin), and Tom Lyons (fiddle) to sit in. The combination jelled and they decided to form a group.
The decision to focus on vintage material was easy, Guthridge said. “We were all playing in groups that did more contemporary stuff, so this was an outlet to do something we really enjoyed.” A typical Only Lonesome cover is Buzz Busby’s “Lost,” which combines breakneck picking and lovely three-part harmonies.
The formula works well. Only Lonesome has opened for the Seldom Scene at the Birchmere and played at the 9:30 Club and several regional festivals, as well as holding down a regular bluegrass night at the Argonaut. The show at Mr. Henry’s will be the band’s first on Capitol Hill since the Argonaut closed last summer. Guthridge hopes they can pick up where they left off. “There aren’t many bands playing old school bluegrass having as much fun as we’re having.”
Mark Ortmann and Brian Henneman have been playing in bands together since the early 80s, when they were high school classmates near St. Louis. In 1993 they started The Bottle Rockets, playing countryfied songs with a muscular rock bent, and they haven’t let up since. On March 28they come to The Hamilton with Chuck Prophet and the Mission Express.
Years of touring behind some great records (and through a few dry spells) have honed The Bottle Rockets into an explosively cohesive force that’s best experienced in a club or bar, where you can see them sweat and feel their joy in playing together.
“There are ups and downs in anyone’s career,” said Ortmann, the group’s drummer. “If you can average them out and stick with it, it kind of pays off.”
Lead singer and guitarist Henneman writes most of the songs, which range from a declaration of loyalty to his dog to the curse of a cheap car. It’s blue collar music that has earned The Bottle Rockets an intensely loyal following.
“As a working musician you just appreciate being able to work at music these days,” said Ortmann. “We’ve outlasted a lot of trends in the music business.”