Town Mountain Talks Bluegrass

Karin McLaughlin
By Karin McLaughlin / August 30, 2018
Town Mountain (Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither)

​Zach Smith, of Town Mountain was nice enough to take some time on his vacation to talk with DC Music Review ahead of Appaloosa Festival where they are playing Labor Day Weekend.


Karin McLaughlin: Can you just give anyone who maybe isn't familiar with Town Mountain kind of an overview of the band and your history with the band and also the band in general?

Zach Smith: Sure, sure. So to my knowledge has been around somewhere between 10 and 12 years.  It's a five piece, typical lineup bluegrass band  - you have guitar, mandolin, fiddle and upright bass.  They had a lineup change a little bit, but the original members that are still in the band - Robert (Greer) and Jesse (Langlais).  It's funny -  I've been with the band for two years now and it's been an amazing two years - best two years of my life and all that jazz.  I was a fan of theirs for three years and now I get to play with them so it’s come full circle.  It's really fun to be part of the creative process.  They hired me and then at my first real rehearsal, they were working on a new song right off the bat.  It's a great band to work with.  They're very democratic and everybody has an equal say and it's just great professionalism - it's an awesome band for sure!

KM: So what were you doing prior to joining Town Mountain?

Town Mountain (Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither)

Town Mountain (Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither)

ZS: I was in college at App (Appalachian) State, which is where I grew up and I wasn't going for music actually, I was going for ceramics.  I'm better at music than I am at taking tests and being in college, so it was a real godsend for me.   My college band opened for them in Winston Salem and I just bombarded​ Jesse with business cards and I was like, "Man, if the opportunity ever arises again where you're auditioning bass players, I'd love to have shot at it!"  Low and behold, about a year later, he called me up right before Spring semester started and was like, "Hey man learn these two albums and come audition!"  So, I did and ​then I quit school the next day after I got it (laughs).

KM: Now it's funny that when you describe Town Mountain and what they are as a typical bluegrass band, we also hear some things that they don't that they don't consider typical for bluegrass bands. One being that you guys have a full drum kit that you use in your music. How did that kind of come into play?

ZS: Yeah, so I think Town Mountain may have always had drums at least on a track or two of their albums, every album they’ve done.  Now that we’re getting some momentum and playing these bigger festivals trying to get more in the broader spectrum than just the Bluegrass community, we've been trying to incorporate drums a lot more.  On the new album that's coming out in October, we have our buddy Miles Miller playing on every song of the album.  Miles plays with Sturgill Simpson and is amazing to work with in the studio.  We've been fortunate to have that on the new album, it crosses over really well. You know, I think Robert and Jesse and Phil when they're writing, and when they're thinking about these new tunes, I know that they draw a lot from the old JD Crowe and the New South album, My Home Ain’t in the Hall of Fame, which was a pretty wild album, because it had pedal steel and drums on it and it was still considered bluegrass, so I think they really pull from that.  Also, the JD Crowe album, Bluegrass Evolution and so I think I think the drums really help to tie that in.

KM: Bluegrass, for the traditional folks obviously, has never gone anywhere, it’s always been around, but bluegrass, especially in the past, I would say 10 years, and really the past five or six, has gotten a resurgene and is taking a turn. People like Yonder (Mountain Stringband), (The Infamous) Stringdusters and you guys, are playing more progressive bluegrass.  How is it to be part of that movement, where you're really crossing a line that maybe some of the old school folks, way out in Boone or other more remote areas where Bluegrass is traditional, might not necessarily consider this traditional or even maybe be fans of it?  You guys are gaining so many more fans, especially in the world of jam bands and you guys go and play a festival where there's all kinds of music - do you guys notice a new crowd of people that follow your music? Or also, do you kind of seen both the young and the old coming together when you guys do shows like that?


"New Freedom Blues" from New Freedom Blues

ZS: Yeah, it's interesting.  You do have the bulk of them, my dad being one of them, that think, you know, drums don't necessarily need to be in bluegrass.  Mandolin and the bass, that's your drum kit, right?  And I can definitely side with that sometimes, but I think we're doing well in these in these crossover festivals and I think it's just something that needs to happen to keep bluegrass alive in my generation.  I'm 23 and when I was in high school I was I was one of the only kids that listened to Bluegrass for fun.  Now I'm seeing my friends on Facebook and stuff and they're loving Billy Strings.

KM: Oh, yeah, he’s great!

ZS: Right!?  He’s on this resurgence and he's just making this style of music fun for the younger generation and that's, I mean, that's what we're trying to do.  That's why we love playing these rock clubs.  Rock clubs and dive bars are our favorite venues for sure.  We can get rowdy and we can get young people in there exposed to this music and enjoy shaking their butts to it. So it's all really fun. 

KM: Yeah, definitely.  Another way that I've noticed a lot of bands like Greensky (Bluegrass) gets non-bluegrass fans interested in their music - and you guys do as well, is you cover songs that people know and love, but they’ve never heard it played in a bluegrass way.  For example, personally, one of my favorite songs that you guys cover it a lot is "I'm On Fire".  I'm a huge fan of it.  Also "Landslide" by Fleetwood Mac, anyone could cover that song and it would be absolutely amazing to me!  How do you guys pick what songs you're going to take and put that bluegrass spin on?


"Southern Crescent" from Southern Crescent

ZS: That's a good question.  I don't know how "I'm On Fire" first started because you know ​they recorded that song three albums ago​.  I'll say​ one that we've been really digging on lately is the Dickey Betts- Allman Brothers song "Pony Boy". ​ I think it comes from Robert and Jesse and Phil (Barker) just being, you know, they didn't start out loving solely bluegrass.  They didn't grow up in a family that only listen to gospel and bluegrass, ​they grew up listening to rock when they were in high school, and stuff like that. ​ So I think part of our choosing process is just these songs that have nostalgia and are also really fun to play. ​  We'll work through a song, we'll first learn the chord progressions, and the lyrics, and then ​ we'll go a step further and ​feel out the groove and the field changes and see ​if the original groove would work in a bluegrass sense.  ​ Say you've got like a hard hitting rock song that's still in ​four four and you can feel it and say, yeah, I think this would this would​ go great with a bluegrass feel. So you'll do it that way. ​ You'll try these different ways until something ​feels great and then you're just ecstatic and you're like, 'Okay, we're going to do it like that!'  ​That's kind of how we arranged the song.

KM: ​You guys also ​do a lot of touring and I know you said​ you've only been with the band a couple years, but when they do a tour, they do ​fifty something dates.  I think I read an article or an interview that I think there may be was, like, 130 shows on the schedule for this year. How do you guys keep it interesting, and also keep keep the good vibes going when you're out t​hat that many days and ​you're spending that much time with people and you're kind of stuck with them?  Obviously, you guys get along well enough that it's not torture, but​ how does it feel to be out that long with these people? ​ D​o you guys get a lot of ideas going on the road when you're traveling for that long together?

Town Mountain

ZS: ​So morale is something that you always have to think about.  Like if the band goes into a venue ​with low morale and ​say the sound check didn't go so well​ or maybe we're feeling rushed, ​we try and always ​regroup about 20 to 30 minutes before the show and just in the green room together. ​  We just ​breathe ​and goof off and, kind of always try to lighten up the mood - just get​ in the right mindset before we get on stage. ​ You never ​want to put on a bad show, whether it's 1000 people or 55 people listening ​you always want to put on the best show.  These 55 people, they paid they paid their hard earned money and they took time out of their day to come see this band they either know nothing about it and you want them to become fans or they already are and are really excited about it.  ​Either way, we always try to put on the best show that we possibly can and that's kind of how we do that. ​  It's always​ hard though, a lot of these guys are married​, and you know, ​Jesse just had a baby, so they're leaving these families behind to go on the road with a bunch of sweaty men (laughs) and play bluegrass for people,  so it is hard.  It's such a light hearted band.  We've got a great cast and crew, great sound man and we just we just goof off a lot and try to keep everything as light as we can. As far as ​arranging and coming up with stuff on the road, we started this new thing that's hopefully going to take off called cover to cover and it's just going to be like a cover series that we do maybe every two weeks or every once a month and and we'll film it while we're on the road. ​ It will just be a new cover that we kind of come come up with on the fly that day, we'll record it and put it up.  So the first one we did was ​Seminole Winds.  We recorded the little video down in St. Augustine, Florida and then we played that evening.   It's just fun and it keeps things interesting and it adds to our repertoire.  It's good all around, for sure. ​  In the end fans seem to like it and that's what it's all about, you know.

KM: ​Specifically, we're going to talk a little bit about Appaloosa Festival, which you guys have coming up Labor Day weekend and, I don't know how much of the lineup you've been able to check out, but there's a lot of Irish bands on there.  Bluegrass and Irish music are both very traditional to certain cultures.  I mean, you've got ​Scythian and Gaelic Storm and you've even got​ The Boyle School of Irish Dancers, which is a big dance group around this area that do all the parades.  You know, ​they're the girls with the big curls, and the​y do the traditional Irish dancing, it's almost like clogging.​  I know this is hard to predict, but being that both genres of music​ ​are so traditional, is there anything that you think maybe you guys might be picking up from some of the bands like that and kind of vice versa?  Or maybe you'll ​introduce ​something from the Irish traditional style that you guys might be interested to pick up and take on the road with you?

"I Miss The Night" from Southern Crescent

ZS: Well, it's hard to say you know, I know the band is the good friends with Scythian, so it's possible we could coordinate something whilst at the festival, ​maybe get one of those guys on stage.  I will say that our fiddle player, Bobby Britt​, is really well versed in that style of music and he just came out with a solo album called ​Alaya and and it's got some heavy hitters on it.  We play one instrumental off there that has a has a very good Irish fiddle feel.   We'll definitely play that and, yeah, you're right, it's hard to predict and hard to say.​  I love Irish music, I love the heritage and history behind it and so I'm excited.  I didn't know that actually, I've been so busy that I haven't been able to look at some of these great ​lineups for these festivals.

KM: Wait, you mean you don't know every band on every show of lineups you're playing? ​(laughs)

ZS: ​I know ​maybe I just haven't been in the biz long enough (laughs).  ​

KM: Maybe that leaves some room for some onstage and at festival collaborations then if you guys are ​similar and close ​like you said.  

ZS:  Yeah we definitely try to do that every chance we get.  ​Like we when we play down in Chapel Hill, we always hit up our buddies in Mandolin Orange to see if they're in town and if they are, have them sit in with us.  They're such great musicians and just so easy to play with and to play with, just great people.  So we every chance we get we tried to collaborate with our friends at festivals or shows and stuff. It's always fun.

KM: Oh, well, here's a hint - you might not have known this either, but Mandolin Orange is going to be at App​aloosa as well!

ZS: Oh, thank goodness I did know that.

KM: So this last question that I have kind of goes along with all this, and since you're a bit - I hope this isn't insulting at all, because younger is great, but you are a bit - younger, I hope that this is kind of something that maybe you've thought about and already have in the back of your mind.  My favorite question to ask anyone I get to interview is, is there something particular that's on your musical bucket list that you're hoping to check off soon? It could be you know, working with a certain artists or even playing a certain venue,​ or getting to maybe learn a new instrument -anything ​ that you're trying to check off or that you, maybe with the band, have talked about prior that you guys are maybe really hoping to be able to collaborate with someone or even work with you know, a certain producer or songwriter - something like that?

​​ZS: Man, well, I will say this - in just my short two years of being with this band, I've gotten to check off probably a whole sheet of bucket list things:  I've gotten to play The Orange Peel in Asheville, I got to play the Grand Ole Opry and my parents got to see it,  ​I've gotten to play and be a part of the recording process with Tyler Childers and so many other things.  Just the fact of being able to fly to a gig​ for me, that was a huge thing for me that I never thought ​I'd be able to do (laughs).  So it's just been ​amazing, but let me ​think.  Well, The Opry was a huge one that was like something, it was the best 15 minutes of my life so far.  (laughs). ​

KM: Yeah, I'm sure!  People usually have to wait way more years to be able to do that!

Town Mountain (Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither)

Town Mountain (Photo Credit: Sandlin Gaither)

ZS:​ I'd say The Ryman (Auditorium in Nashville) is a big thing that's probably ​next ​on my bucket list.  That or ​Red Rocks.  We got to go out there and just see a show there.  Steep Canyon (Rangers) was out there and we had a day off in Colorado and the​y're buddies of ours, so they got us all tickets and that was an amazing venue!  You know it just to even be able to open for someone at Red Rocks would be amazing. 

​KM: It's amazing enough to see bands play there - I've seen quite a few, but I've had the worst luck with weather. ​  We saw ​Greensky and ​it was like a monsoon last September.   I'm going out ​again this September for their Sunday show and I'm hoping just to see one Red Rocks show where it's ​no rain, no snow, sleet, no nothing - no precipitation at all.

ZS: It's totally unpredictable out there.  It looked like it was ​going to downpour on us the whole time we were out there and of course I didn't have a rain jacket.  There's no cover so you have to be prepared for the worst, but it held off and it was an amazing show for sure​!

KM: Well, that's definitely a high hope for a lot of people - I hope you get to do that one!  I also want to thank you again for taking time while you're at the beach and hopefully we will get to catch up in person at Appaloosa Festival.

ZS: Yes, definitely, seek me out if you come, I'd love to meet you in person for sure.

KM: Yeah, for sure. Zach, thank you so much. Enjoy the rest of the beach trip.

 ZS: I'll try. Thanks so much​, bye bye.


Be sure to see Zach Smith and Town Mountain at the Appaloosa Festival on Labor Day Weekend.

Performance Details

Performance Details

Performance

Details


August 31 - September 2 (Labor Day Weekend)

Starts: 6:00 PM August 31

Ends: 10:00 AM September 3


Appaloosa Festival (https://appaloosafestival.com/)

Skyline Ranch Resort
751 Mountain Road
Front Royal, VA 22630 (Google Maps Link)


About the author
Karin McLaughlin

Karin McLaughlin

Karin has been a live music junkie all her life, however is a fairly new fan in the world of jam bands and bluegrass. She grew up on hip hop, classic soul, motown and classic rock but has found a new home in the festival world and that is what, in part, had brought her to DC Music Review. Karin produces and hosts a weekly radio show in the area called Karin's Calendar, where she talks all about 'Where to be in the DMV'. She is very excited to be starting down a semi-new road with us and hopes to use her interview skills and write ups of shows to contribute even more to DC Music Review.