Since late 2013, the Devil Makes Three has been touring to support I'm a Stranger Here, the acoustic band's breakthrough fourth album, which pushed its way not only near the top of the bluegrass chart but onto the Billboard 200 albums chart as well.
In keeping with the folk tradition, those 10 songs — in the band's signature blend of Western swing, old-time country-blues, folk and bluegrass — have continued to grow and change.
"We're pretty into letting the songs evolve from what's on the record," says singer-guitarist Pete Bernhard. "They always get better and better. Playing live is what we love to do, so as time goes on, the songs get better and tighter and we write new parts."
Bernard formed the Devil Makes Three in Santa Cruz, California, in 2002 with Cooper McBean on guitar and banjo and Lucia Turino on upright bass. The band released its self-titled debut album that same year and hit the road, steadily building a following. In 2007, Los Angeles-based Milan Records re-released the debut, and the band followed with Do Wrong Right (2009) and the live Stomp & Smash (2011). By then, the Devil Makes Three no longer was the group of rough and rowdy hellions who simply wanted to put on an energetic show. Improved musicianship not only led to more fiery performances but to sharper songwriting and a bolder, more expansive sound.
"Most of the roots of our band are in Western swing and blues, but everything we do, we do it in our own way," Bernhard says.
To follow Stomp & Smash, the Devil Makes Three sought for the first time to record with an outside producer, hooking up with Americana legend Buddy Miller, named No Depression's artist of the decade in 2008.
"It all happened pretty naturally. We just put together a new group of songs and went into the studio," Bernard says. "We were all pretty determined to have it be a live-sounding record and add some stuff we'd never had before, and Buddy was on the same page. Buddy was big into hearing what the room sounded like and letting it be what it was."
Released on Nashville's New West Records (home to Miller, Steve Earle, and the Austin City Limits live albums), I'm a Stranger Here finds the band adding percussion, strings, electric guitar, fiddle, and horns. The result is an emotionally deeper record, moving at least a little beyond the tales of hard times (and self-inflicted hard times) found on the band's previous records.
"I always write from personal experience — whatever is going on in my life or the people around me," Bernhard says. "This record was a little bit more sad and dark than some of the previous records. It's just a function of what's going on in my life and reflecting that into the music."
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Two years and change removed from I'm a Stranger Here, the Devil Makes Three is working into the nightly setlists new songs, some originals and some covers that both give a peek into what the band will be working on once they're finally off the road.
"We're going to release an album of our heroes, hopefully this year," says Bernhard, listing in rapid fire Townes Van Zandt, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Tampa Red, Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson and Bill Monroe, and Hank Williams.
The band takes its time writing albums, letting the songs percolate and come as naturally as possible. And in keeping with the folk tradition, Bernhard is always on the lookout for ways to touch on some topics that speak some truth about the world.
"Our musical genre actually does do that historically, like with Woody Guthrie and that whole folk revival, and even before that with the [Industrial Workers of the World] and protest songs and union songs. All that stuff is a big influence for me," he says. "I've always tried really hard to sneak in a little bit of politics to our music. That's a tradition that does have a lasting history and I want to keep carrying on."