Howlin' Brothers: Americana String Band Heads to Nashville and Learns How to Dance
The Howlin' Brothers get jumpin'.
Joshua Black Wilken
On Nashville-via-New York string trio the Howlin' Brothers' debut record, Howl, the band doesn't "re-create" a specific moment in Americana music so much as run wild and wooly through great big landscapes of it. Recorded by Brendan Benson (the Raconteurs, The Maine) for his Readymade Records imprint, Ben Plasse (upright bass, banjo, vocals), Ian Craft (fiddle, banjo, vocals), and Jared Green (guitar, harmonica, vocals) create something truly exciting with Howl, something that takes in and synthesizes elements of bluegrass, country, blues, gospel, and New Orleans jazz, presenting it like a widescreen show, a survey of Americana.
We spoke with Green about moving to Nashville, recording with Benson, and teaming up with Warren Hayes of the Allman Brothers/Gov't Mule on the song "Big Time."
Up on the Sun: Your debut record, Howl, touches on a variety of American styles -- bluegrass, gospel, country, New Orleans second line music -- which keeps the record from sounding like a lot of other Americana records. You know, slavishly devoted to one style or sound. How did this multi-genre approach develop?
Jared Green: I don't think we had a really clear thought on doing the album a certain way. I think the way we [Plasse, Craft] write songs is kind of different, and they're all good songs. So, we just recorded them all and picked the ones we liked best. They just ended up being different styles of music [laughs]. I think it's because we don't want to limit ourselves to one genre. We just think good music is good music. A string band like us is versatile enough to do different kinds of styles of music.
Was your study of the broad swath of American music done in a classical sense, or more organically, just picked up from listening, collecting, and talking?
I think it's just stuff we've absorbed from records. Our sound is just the combination of the things we like. Blues, old time . . . [things like that]. When we started playing as a string band, we played a lot of bluegrass, but we like a lot of gospel music and New Orleans kind of music. I think [our sound has developed] more through listening, just through records we like. The old-time thing has mostly been picked up from living in Nashville, the country music traditions.
You guys all met in New York, correct?
We all met in Ithaca; we all actually went to school together. That's when we started playing in a band together. Nine years ago.
After the jump: "We've learned a lot of the fun stuff from Southern culture."
How do you like Nashville, and how do you think it's influenced the sounds the Howlin' Brothers make?
I think that Nashville's diverse. There's a lot of country music, but there's just a lot of musicians that have moved there, and they're all interested in different things, musically, and just creatively. There's awesome artists, and just lots of creative people. It's a nice-sized town, there's a lot to do, and then musically speaking, there's just so many people to play music with. You're always learning something from someone else. You're always hearing brand new songs from people. We've learned a lot about country music, definitely being down there, but also even dancing. [Laughs] We've learned about a lot of the fun stuff from Southern culture.
And that's where you connected with producer Brendan Benson. I know his involvement throws some people, because he's known for rock and power pop, but I imagine him as a guy who's into a lot of music, and I think his records bear that out. How did your partnership develop?
We met Brendan through a good friend of ours, Buddy Jackson, who's an artist. Buddy recommended two of us, Ian, our banjo player, and myself, to play on a record Brendan was producing for Cory Chisel. By the end of the two or three weeks spent working on the record, we'd just become good friends. Brendan's eclectic with the music he likes. He likes old recordings, blues stuff. Someone modern he listens to all the time is Andrew Bird; he loves those recordings. I think that over the time we worked on Cory's record, he just got to liking us. He said, "The next record I want to do is one by you guys, if that's cool." We didn't believe it until we got a call from his manager, and we said, "Heck yeah, we'll do it."
Your record features a guest spot by Warren Hayes of Gov't Mule/The Allman Brothers. How did that go down?
That was through Brendan, through his publisher. They have the same publisher, and they had arranged for Warren to be in town for a few days. He was looking to write with people. We were working on the record, and Brendan invited him to come in and see what we were doing. Brendan said, "Hey, maybe instead of writing with other people, you might be interested in what they Howlin' Brothers are doing and record on a song." So that's what happened. We had "Big Time" almost finished, but he came in and put a really nice touch on the song.
The Howlin' Brothers are scheduled to perform Tuesday, June 25, at The Western In Scottsdale.
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