NewFound Road bringing its bluegrass take on pop classics to The Ark
But the group members, most of whom are in their 30s, also love other styles, including country, rock n roll, soul and folk music. So, both onstage and in the studio, they like to dip into those other genres, usually by taking a song from outside the bluegrass tradition and giving it the banjo-fiddle-mandolin treatment.
That instinct was front and center on their latest album, a live set titled “Live at the Down Home,” recorded at that venerable music venue in Johnson City, Tenn.
In addition to a few of their original songs, and three covers of bluegrass classics (The Stanley Brothers’ “Lonesome River,” Flatt & Scruggs’ “Ruben” and Randall Hylton’s “Room at the Top of the Stairs”), they also give the bluegrass treatment to some pop / folk classics—Jackson Browne’s “These Days,” Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Dave Loggins’ “Please Come to Boston.”They also tackle a classic-country gem—Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis”—and “Houston,” which was a country-pop hit for Glen Campbell in 1974.
“We just listen to so much music, on the road and at home, and our tastes are all over the map—bluegrass isn’t the only thing we’re about,” says group leader, lead singer and guitarist Tim Shelton. “So we’re just gravitated to performing songs we like, no matter where they come from, whether they’re our own songs, or if they come from some other genre.
“And we play a lot of venues that are outside of the usual bluegrass-venue circuit, like performing arts centers, and folk festivals, so we like to draw people in with some variety,” says Shelton, who joins his bandmates on Friday for a show at The Ark.
“And even as a music fan, when I’m at a show, I like to hear something that’s kind of surprising—I like that when I hear an artist or group do that, so we try to do that as well,” says Shelton by phone from his home in Franklin, Ohio, between Cincinatti and Dayton.
And, Shelton admits, performing pop / folk songs, in bluegrass style, also helps expand their audience. “Absolutely,” he says. “We’ve definitely grown our audience over the last several years, and that’s part of the reason.”
The group was founded in 2001, and released four studio albums prior to recording “Live.” The other full-time members of the group are Josh Miller on banjo and guitar (and, on occasion, lead vocals) and brothers Jamey and Joe Booher on bass and mandolin, respectively. And, a “part-time” member is fiddler Jim VanCleeve of the group Mountain Heart. VanCleeve has played on three of the group’s studio discs, and “has toured with us a fair amount in the last few years, as his schedule allows,” says Shelton. And VanCleeve was on board for the “Live” recording, and definitely makes his presence felt, with a wicked breakdown on “Ruben” and providing flowing, plaintive fiddle lines on the Loggins and Hall songs.
Interestingly, several of the songs on “Live” had not previously appeared on those studio discs—including the Jackson Browne, Bill Withers and Dave Loggins songs. “We didn’t want to make a live album that just rehashed songs from our studio records,” says Shelton. “We also wanted to give our fans something new.”
When deciding what songs to cover, it’s not enough that the band members just “like” a song, though. “We have to give them some thought, and figure out if they can be adapted to bluegrass instrumentation, and sound as good as we want them to, and sound like they make sense,” he says. “There are a lot of songs that we love, but we couldn’t pull off with our instrumentation, so we don’t do them.”
“Ain’t No Sunshine” is “just a song I’ve always loved, as long as I can remember, and it’s not a something that is performed at a lot of the venues we play, so we thought it would be cool, and we tweaked it, and it’s become a big part of our live show.”
But one key to NewFound’s approach to interpreting classics, says Shelton, is to bring something new to it. “Like, in this case, Withers’ original was remorseful, whereas our version seems kind of angry. Actually, that’s something we often do—we’ll think, ‘Let’s so something that sounds like we’re ticked off,’” he adds with a laugh.
As for the Jackson Browne song, Shelton says he was inspired to cover it because it spoke to “some things I had been going through personally, and it just struck me, and had an emotional impact on me, and that’s another one that’s not covered a lot in our world, and our audience now loves it.”
But getting back to the group’s bluegrass roots: Shelton grew up in southeast Ohio, which has a rich bluegrass tradition, owing in part to its close proximity to the Kentucky border. In fact, he grew up in Franklin, where he still lives.
“There’s just something about this music that touches your soul that I can’t really articulate,” says Shelton. “When I first got into bluegrass as a teenager, the Stanley Brothers’ music just killed me—it had that mournful, bluesy quality that I just love.
“They’re probably my favorite bluegrass band ever, in terms of the songs and the singing and the vibe, but I would say that Flatt & Scruggs were probably the best in terms of technical ability. Bill Monroe is often cited as the father of bluegrass, but I think that Earl Scruggs deserves more credit for the way bluegrass music sounds today than anyone else.”
The group is currently gathering material for its next studio album, which will be a mix of original songs and tunes penned by outside writers. The way it’s shaping up, “this isn’t going to be a ‘happy’ bluegrass album,” stresses Shelton. “The subject matter, and the music, have a bluesier tone than what most bluegrass bands go for, and even the uptempo songs have an angrier edge.”
Kevin Ransom is a free-lance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com who can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.