Town Mountain Puts a Fresh Sheen on Bluegrass With ‘New Freedom Blues’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

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New Freedom Blues is the sixth studio album for the North Carolina-based Town Mountain, the follow-up to 2016’s Southern Crescent. Helmed by producer Caleb Klauder, the band stepped outside the bluegrass parameters to embrace new instruments and some high profile guests. They feature drummer and Sturgill Simpson collaborator Miles Miller, as well as a duet and co-write with recent Americana Music Association Emerging Artist of the Year Tyler Childers. Matt Smith, formerly of The Honeycutters, on pedal steel. The results stretch traditional bluegrass to roots-pop and honky-tonk.

Town Mountain is vocalist/banjoist Jesse Langlais, vocalist/mandolinist Phil Barker, vocalist/guitarist Robert Greer, fiddle layer Bobby Britt and bassist Zach Smith. They are a premier bluegrass band, having made their debut in 2007 with Original Bluegrass and Roots Country and playing a heavy touring schedule that includes many top bluegrass and mixed genre festivals.

This is the first time the band has ever recorded with a drummer and right away you hear Miller’s beats pushing the band. “Having a full drum kit on the record gave the songs a bigger sound,”  Phil Barker says. “Miles has a great musical sense, a deep pocket, and rhythmically, a strong foundation. With him and Zach [Smith] playing together, it was a solid wall of sound for all of us to ride on. He’s really intuitive about what a song needs, when to give it space, and when to make it rock a little harder.”

The album opens with the title track where bluegrass sits alongside roots rock as they sing about that bittersweet feeling that ensues after finally deciding to end a relationship Barker says, “’New Freedom Blues’ is about the feeling you get after you’ve broken up with someone or done something you thought would be best in the long run.  You keep telling yourself it was the right thing to do, but the second-guessing hurts like hell.”

The band also points to the title as emblematic of their evolving sound as well as their willingness to speak up about issues of inequality. “Life and Debt,” with lyrics like, “Piles and piles and miles of cash / couldn’t get me back to where I once was at,” offers direct commentary on the difficult financial realities faced by most Americans. “Lyrically, I’m trying to convey the struggle that most of us have with some form of debt,” Langlais says of “Life and Debt”. “Looking back to my first year of college, I recall credit card companies setting up shop in the student union, essentially handing out lines of credit to children with zero money management skills. It’s predatory behavior in my opinion, but I’m trying to get that across in a lighthearted way.”

As mentioned  Tyler Childers, co-wrote the album’s closing track “Down Low.”  Childers distinctive Kentucky-bred voice  brings an outlaw, Waylon Jennings kind of vibe to the proceedings with lyrics like ‘I’ve been getting into meanness on the dark end of the street.”

Hats off to Town Mountain for finding that balance where they’ve retained the adept picking and harmonies that established them while stretching their sound to fold in some new elements.

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