Heritage Music Review, November 2008:
BLUEGRASS FROM COFFEETOWN
By Doug Bright
All too often, especially in this age of relentless musical homogenization, urban bluegrass bands tend to be painfully easy to identify. Despite their polished vocal harmonies and slick instrumental chops, the twangy, heartfelt simplicity that defined the music in the early 1950's is virtually absent. Nevertheless, one all-star bluegrass band from Latt`e Land stands in refreshingly sharp contrast, demonstrating a high standard of musicianship without losing the music's deep-rooted hillbilly soul. In witty recognition of this fact, the band calls itself The Downtown Mountain Boys.
The seeds were planted about 1999 when fiddler Paul Elliott joined a Seattle bluegrass band called Rainy Pass and met singer/guitarist Don Share. A classically trained violinist from childhood, Elliott got his first taste of bluegrass at age 14 when a friend loaned him two historic albums: Flatt and Scruggs' 1962 Carnegie Hall concert and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1972 all-star country session, WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN. "The one-two punch of those was really somethin'!" he recalls. "I thought, You mean you can do that with a violin? Why didn't anybody tell me?"
After studying country fiddle with the now-famous Barbara Lamb, whose father had been his elementary-school music teacher, Elliott joined his first local bluegrass group, The Apple Blossom String Band, about the time of his senior year in high school. During the late 1970's he gained valuable experience touring the Northwest with an eclectically styled trio called The Cats 'n' The Fiddle. "We'd do everything from R&B to traditional fiddle tunes to wacked-out arrangements of old jazz tunes," he recalls. "I learned a lot about arranging and different repertoires. That was a great band!"
After subbing occasionally in California for fiddler Paul Shelasky in the progressive bluegrass band Good Ol' Persons, Elliott spent four more years during the mid-to-late 1980's in a Spokane-based country-rock band. "I don't think that band ever played in Seattle," he says, "but it played Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Oregon. That was another pretty hard-workin' band. It's not a very healthy lifestyle. I decided I was gonna go back to the University, which I had dropped out of to go play with The Cats 'n' The Fiddle, and I was gonna do something practical."
Although his early coursework at the University of Washington focused on the hard sciences, Elliott ended up with a degree in music composition. "After I graduated," he recalls, "I went off to London for six months to study composition with a guy over there. I traveled around, came back, and wound up working for Microsoft--a complete left turn. I came out there as a summer job while I was goin' to school at the U. I didn't have any background in it, but I sort of had a knack: I really enjoyed that kind of problem-solving, and I wound up bein' out there for nine years."
It was at the Puget Sound Guitar Workshop around 1999 that Paul Elliott reconnected with bluegrass music. "I sat down in a bluegrass jam session and just totally got my butt kicked," he confides. "It suddenly dawned on me that I really never did know how to play bluegrass, so I went home and looked around to see who was playing bluegrass, and I met Rainy Pass. They were lookin' for a fiddle player, so I started playin' with those guys, and that was really the first time I seriously started investigating bluegrass fiddle as a style and tryin' to work on it. When I started playin' with Rainy Pass, I really got interested in what makes bluegrass bluegrass."
"Rainy Pass really got together around the original songwriting of Nancy Riccio," explains Don Share, who was playing Dobro steel guitar in the group. "She is a really good songwriter. That band was very much her band." About two years after the 2001 release of a critically acclaimed CD called COLD RAINS OF WINTER, Rainy Pass dissolved when Riccio moved to Arizona. It was then that Paul Elliott and Don Share began discussing the formation of a new band. The veteran players under greatest consideration were banjoist Dave Keenan and mandolinist Tom Moran. Keenan, an eclectically styled multi-instrumentalist, had gained his fame in two bands with singer/guitarist Jo Miller: Ranch Romance in the early Nineties and the rockabilly-oriented
Burly Roughnecks a decade later. Moran had played everything from bluegrass to European classical music around town since the 1970's and had, in fact, participated in the progressive jazz string band Cat Walk with Elliott in the early Nineties. "When Rainy Pass broke up," Elliott explains, "I think Don and I were thinking, "Well, gee, what would it be like to be in a band with Tom? What would it be like to be in a band with Dave?" So we asked everybody, and everybody said yes."
The Downtown Mountain Boys' first bassist was Joe Wilmhoff, who had done the digital mastering for the Rainy Pass album. When Wilmhoff returned to college two years later to pursue a career in nursing, he was replaced by Terry Enyeart, a Longview native who had made his first mark on the Seattle bluegrass scene in the popular band Rural Delivery. "When I joined RD," he explains, "I started playin' rhythm guitar and mandolin, so my bass fell to the wayside. We still play: we usually get four gigs a summer."
Of the Downtown Mountain Boys, Enyeart says, "I really enjoy playin' with those guys. It's a great place for me to keep my bass licks up. I play guitar and vocals with the Cascade Mountain Boys, so I guess I'm spreadin' myself a little thin right now, but none of the bands are playing so much that they bump into each other." Despite Enyeart's busy musical life, the Downtown Mountain Boys couldn't be happier. "I've always been a big fan of Terry's," says Dave Keenan.
"Having Terry in the band is great," Paul Elliott concurs. "Terry has always been one of my favorite singers around this area."
In 2006 the Downtown Mountain Boys began crafting their debut CD, working in the do-it-yourself tradition of mountain homebrewing. "Paul recorded it," Dave Keenan explains. "About two years ago Paul decided he wanted to build a studio in his house. He's one of those guys that gets an idea and just goes full boar, so he researched it all, bought a bunch of great mikes, got ProTools, and learned how to do it. It's pretty simple--just two rooms, really, although there's kind of a hallway that's somehow used as well."
Elliott's inspiration had come from working with David Lange, the most popular and respected engineer in the Seattle area folk community. In fact, it was at Lange's studio and under his tutelage that Elliott produced a debut CD for another local bluegrass band, Back Burner. "I had worked a lot in Dave's studio as a musician on other people's projects," he explains. "I hold him in
incredibly high regard as an engineer, especially for acoustic music. He just knows how to get good sound, so it was really cool to have an opportunity to go through the whole process in the studio with Dave as I was working with Back Burner and observe everything he did."
Concerning his own home-based facility, Elliott says, "Studio is maybe a flattering description of it. We don't really have enough room here to record everyone at the same time." Consequently, given the conflicting schedules of the musicians, the size of Elliott's studio, and the impossibility of their fiddler functioning simultaneously as engineer, the Downtown Mountain Boys were forced into a cut-and-paste approach to recording that can be very difficult in a medium as
spontaneous and interactive as bluegrass music. "We just went in, one at a time, and just slowly built this record from the ground up," Dave Keenan remembers. "We did a lot of rhythm guitar first and slowly added little pieces at a time, which is the way that I like to record. I can't explain why, but it worked."
In all too many cases, the cut-and-paste approach results in a performance that's all precision and no soul, but this disc fairly crackles with energy from beginning to end. BIG DARLIN', named for a Paul Elliott instrumental that serves as the final track, offers a satisfying mix of the old and the new delivered with a brand of creativity that's deeply rooted in tradition.
It opens with Nancy Riccio's "Back In The Black", a fast-paced attention-grabber that captures the desperation of living from paycheck to paycheck in tough economic times. Another uptempo Riccio number on this album involves desperation of a different kind, but in this drama the name of the lady being desperately sought is Carol Ann, not Susan. Both are characterized by solid three-part harmony and crisp, snappily choreographed solos from banjoist Dave Keenan, mandolinist Tom Moran, and fiddler Paul Elliott. From the Gibson Brothers, a popular bluegrass band from upstate New York, comes "I Gotta Get Back To You", which features guitarist Don Share in a tight vocal duet with Keenan. The twin fiddle-mandolin work from Elliott and Moran,
sometimes in unison and sometimes harmonized, adds a fascinating dimension. Historically speaking, the oldest number on this album is the traditional "Black-eyed Susie", but here again, the Downtown Mountain Boys put their creativity to use. Instead of the barn-burning tempo at which it's generally performed, their pace is a relaxed lope, with Terry Enyeart leading on the
verses and Moran harmonizing beautifully with Elliott's fiddle. Likewise, Johnny Cash's "Train of Love" is taken at a slower-than-usual tempo, but the band's insistently rhythmic, Cajunesque approach still captures the song's essential train effect.
As this album eloquently demonstrates, the most astonishing thing about the Downtown Mountain Boys is the deeply rooted traditionalism of their original material. Terry Enyeart's "My Holy Beacon" is the quintessential bluegrass gospel song, sounding as if it could just as easily have been written during the music's'formative years. Dave Keenan's "Bug Tussle" has the bluesy, down-home feel of an old-time fiddle-and-banjo tune, but its brisk tempo and heads-up instrumental work would render it exciting in any age. Though somewhat crookedly metered and quirkily chorded, Paul Elliott's "Big Darlin'" possesses a similarly bluesy old-time quality, and the band comes up with fascinating instrumental duet passages that climax with yet another dazzling demonstration of fiddle-mandolin harmony from Elliott and Moran.
Whether they're performing a Flatt and Scruggs classic like "Till The End of The World Rolls Round", a swinging vintage honky-tonker like "Smooth Sailin", or a hot new original, the Downtown Mountain Boys are a true-blue bluegrass band. Their snappy, tradition-based instrumental work is fully matched by solid, country-flavored vocals from Terry Enyeart, Don Share, and Dave Keenan. "Basically, we've got three baritones," Paul Elliott confides. "We don't really have a tenor singer, so every time we're workin' up a song, there's a lot of experimentation to find out how we can stack stuff and what key to look for. It's a limitation, but I guess it defines."
With the exception of bluegrass festivals and local performances, the Downtown Mountain Boys are relying on the popular online music store Cdbaby.com to sell their album, and they're delighted with the results. "I can't think of a bad thing to say about 'em," Paul Elliott says of the Portland-based company. "Heck, it's brought us sales from Spain and Brussels and Italy! We're not talkin' hundreds of sales, but every once in a while you get a piece of mail saying, "Hey, guess who bought your CD!" It's amazing! The Internet is not only the world's largest book; it's the world's largest store. There's never been a parallel."
The band's Internet presence is greatly enhanced on a local level by its website, www.downtownmountainboys.com. Designed and maintained by Don Share, it offers a performance calendar, sound samples from the BIG DARLIN' album, and a link to the Cdbaby page where customers can buy it. "I've become the webmaster," Share says modestly. "I'm sort of self-taught."
The Downtown Mountain Boys appear November 28th at Crossroads Mall in Bellevue and November 29th at Phinney Neighborhood Center, 6532 Phinney Avenue North, for a 7:30 Seattle Folklore Society Concert.