Two High String Band Tears It Down

“The whole thrust behind putting this particular outfit together was like, ‘Let’s play some damn bluegrass. Let’s stop f*ing around and play some bluegrass,’” Billy Bright (mandolin, vocals) says of the latest line-up of Austin, Texas’ Two High String Band. “And it just so happened these great guys were around. So we didn’t have to say much it was like, ‘We’re going to get together and play some bluegrass!’ And everyone was like, ‘Ok I’m down! Alan Munde is going to be there? Ok, cool, I’ll definitely be there!’” It’s that joyously straightforward. After twelve years, various line-up changes and different approaches – from plugged-in rock/grass hybrids to dressed-up acoustic – Two High String Band are embracing those barn-burning basics. Now they are kicking down the front door and setting the silo alight as well by drawing on their local musical connections. Texas may not be the first state that leaps to many minds when you think bluegrass. Although my current home base doesn’t have the deep historical connections to the music of Tennessee or Kentucky, nor the freewheeling scene of Colorado, you can’t mess with the raw talent making strings quake in cozy corners of the Lone Star state each night. With Munde (Country Gazette, Jimmy Martin, Flying Burrito Brothers), who Bright rightfully described as “a patriarch of this music,” on banjo, Mark Rubin (Bad Livers, Ridgetop Syncopators and klezmer champion) on bass and Erik Hokkanen (who has been featured on work by Junior Brown and Bad Livers, as well as countless other projects) on fiddle, added to the dynamic core trio of Bright, Geoff Union (flat-picking guitar, vocals) and Brian Smith (finger-picking guitar, vocals), what we’re looking at is nothing short of a powerhouse populated by Texas musical treasures.

The current line-up came together in a serendipitously organic fashion this year. Hokkanen has been a frequent collaborator with Two High over the years, and is a veritable one-man Austin music scene machine. Speaking of him, Bright says, “If you move to Austin, eventually you learn who Erik is and go to see his show and get your mind blown [writer's note: I will vouch for the mind-blowing] and go, ‘Oh wow, I wonder if he would want to play bluegrass with us?’” Meanwhile with Rubin, “I was playing for a while about a year ago with The Sieker Band and Mark was playing bass in that. We had met before but we played a bunch in that group and it was obvious to me that he would work great in our band.” Besides playing a helluva driving bass, and you’d be pressed to find better powering that essential heart beat, Rubin’s vocals add another layer to the warm Two High harmonies.

Bright resides in the tranquil town of Wimberley, which sits about an hour southwest of Austin in the Texas Hill Country. Besides having met Munde while being involved in a workshop at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas, where Munde taught banjo, Bright explains, “He lives down the road, and I had gone to a couple pickin’ parties at his house. When I emailed him it was just to see if he was available to play a couple gigs with us or something. He emailed me back and said, ‘I just moved back to town, I retired from teaching up there [South Plains].’ He was back home and ready to go, ready to play. That was just a little serendipitous timing there. Alan is a no-brainer as far as a banjo player goes. He’s one of the best there is, especially for bluegrass. It’s a big deal to everyone in the band. And probably for Alan too [laughs] he’s always thankful to be playing and is just an all around great guy.” Munde is a sage chief of the sound, and a direct wire into the tradition with plenty of winking mischief to spread around (he wrote a song called “Traditional Family Breakdown” for example).

The result is one fluidly smooth bluegrass band. I don’t mean in a slick, check-out-these-fancy-pants-licks way. There’s plenty of silt settling in the unpolished edges and ease apparent that gives the music ample breathing room through originals, traditional, and well-loved John Hartford covers. It’s a blissfully natural approach that can just as easily forage in jam territory as show off some tightly wound picking. The smoothness simply comes inherently from the six musicians, as they observably have an absolute riot playing together, seizing the base elements and tossing them around with an infectious sense of unforced glee. They keep that essential firewater undiluted with a genuine buzz that kicks deep in the marrow.

Looking ahead to 2009, Two High plans to tour both locally in Texas – this past year saw the the band grace the stages of Rice Fest and Kerrville Folk Festival – and hopefully bring them to venues further afield. The line-up is set to release an album this coming spring amusingly entitled, in a shore up to local bluegrass pride, Two High String Band’s Hot Texas Bluegrass Burrito. As Bright describes it, “It’s mostly original material. There’s two traditionals and then there is a song we got from Jimmy Martin. There’s a John Coltrane instrumental that Alan brought to us on the banjo. A bunch of it is recorded live [in a studio in the Texas Hill Country].”

Caught on Tape

“Listening to what you’re doing, especially if you’re playing in a band, is a big part of the moving forward process,” Bright says, describing how taping has been useful to Two High’s continual development. “Because there’s sort of a band mentality in every group of how it’s supposed to sound or whatever and when you get to hear it back live, you can observe, ‘Oh this is the way I want it to sound,’ or, ‘This is the way I wanted it to sound.’ [laughs] It’s a big part of the learning process in general for music I think.”

Recordings were also in part what sparked Bright’s interest in the mandolin when he was in college, and he cites Colonel Bruce Hampton & Aquarium Rescue Unit, Jerry Garcia & David Grisman and Bill Monroe as being early influences that piqued his interest in mastering the instrument. Meeting Smith when both were attending Berklee School of Music in Boston also helped set off the journey as, “[Brian's] family had some bluegrass players, his granddad was a bluegrass fiddle player. We went to some jams down in Pennsylvania. We used to jam acoustic in our dorm room there at Berklee, listening to recordings.” Absorbing as much raw material as you can gives you a chance to immerse yourself in the creative process of another, and Bright notes both downloading recordings from sites such as SPPS and a friend who recently had given him, “His whole archive of John Hartford live recordings” as recent sources.

“I think all the listening that you can do is one of the keys to keeping yourself fresh and rejuvenated in your head,” he offers. “Different stuff, old stuff, just any stuff, listening to all different versions. If you want to learn a song and make it your own, there’s nothing better that you can do than listen to a bunch of versions. If you only listen to one version, even if you’re listening to just one person, you’re just gonna hear that in your head. Somebody like John Hartford, god, he made his songs different all the time. That alone is something you can learn from. By listening to different versions you can sort of get some perspective with what he’s considering doing during his performance. You know, how in the hell is he doing it? [laughs] There are some people out there that you find, like a John Hartford, where you can listen to stuff even if it’s bad recordings because you never know what in the hell he’s going to do.”

You can’t argue with learning from the best. Hartford’s legacy of nimble musical deconstruction, unpredictability and a profound yearning for the dusty and overlooked pieces of Americana certainly breathe through the Two High sound. Although some may shy away from using the word “jam,” approaching the music with a sense of revelry and a mind open to treading through improvisational waters is often what keeps the music charged with red-blooded vitality. It’s an untreated, progressive, element that, as Bright muses, has always been an intrinsic part of the scene:

“That’s something I think that has always existed in this music, even before they called it jamgrass or before they called it newgrass or, you know, before they called it bluegrass. If you go back and listen to old Bill Monroe recordings you hear that there’s a lot of jamming going on there too, and that’s all that I would ever say that we’re trying to do is just play the music, with an emphasis on the word play. We do different set lists, but we don’t really make it a point to not repeat a song or something like that. We just play what we want to play. And that’s always going to be somewhat different. Me and Brian and Geoff have been at it together for so long, there’s such a large group of songs that we can choose from. It’s easy if we want to bring a new song or two in to a show, and now we’ve done enough shows where even with the bigger band we have a pretty large repertoire.”

If there’s an underlying mantra, it would probably read something like: keep it simple and don’t overanalyze, and since the members can all speak in a common language, the need for exposition evaporates. Bright describes: “When we were recording that’s just how we did it – got a great cast of characters together and just let everyone say what they know should be said. If you have Alan Munde playing banjo and he’s taking the songs home, listening to them and learning them and all that, then you don’t really have to discuss it with him, that’s part of the beauty of it. I don’t have to sit there and say anything to him really. Not a thing, just, “one, two, three, four!” You know that’s the crazy thing and that’s what really has blown my mind. The same goes with Mark and Erik. Once they know the tunes there’s no discussing it, they just ravage them. I think basically there’s no other way that any of us could imagine playing it. Everyone’s just doing their little part and it’s like I couldn’t hear my part differently you know what I mean? It’s not a part someone’s told me to play or something, it’s the only thing I could possibly imagine playing on that song. That’s kind of what everyone’s doing and everyone gets to the meat of it.”

Considering the members’ combined years of collective experience and study, it’s no surprise Two High have given themselves the freedom to follow their musical surges and urges. “That’s kind of the common thing between us is – we’ve all done a lot of the trying to learn how to play it the way its quote-unquote supposed to be played,” Bright says. “Bill Monroe kind of said, what you’re supposed to do is learn how to play it the way I play it and then play it the right way, which you know, according to him, was his way, and then come up with your own thing. I found just by learning how to try to play it the right way that you inevitably come up with your own thing because you’re never going to sound like Bill Monroe [laughs]. You kind of get over that…The audience is pretty open-minded and you can do whatever you want to do. And that’s what we’re trying to do, [laughs and says in faux aggressive voice] whatever-we-want-to-do! The rules don’t really exist that much anymore, unless you want them to.”

Now that’s some damn bluegrass.

Keep up with the latest Two High dates here.

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December 14th, 2008