Howlin' Brothers: Older Music "Was All About People Grooving on Something Together"
The fact that the Howlin' Brothers chose to release their latest album on Brendan Benson's Readymade Records label might seem to some rather ironic. Their sound is pretty much the polar opposite of the punchy pop motif that Benson himself is known for, both on his own and as Jack White's band-mate in the Raconteurs.
Joshua Black Wilkins
Indeed, by even the broadest definition, the album Howl is an unequivocal roots recording, an evocative combination of bluegrass celebration and deep-bottom blues with total allegiance to authentic Americana. The opening track, "Big Time," sets the tone; a rousing combination of banjos, fiddles, mandolin, and ragtime revelry. Still, despite the spirited introduction, it quickly morphs into other arenas beyond a basic string band template. The decidedly Band-like designs implied by "Delta Queen," the boogie and bluster of "Tennessee Blues," and the jaunty, devil-may-care, or happy-go-lucky strut of "Just Like You" all affirm their multi-hued sensibilities.
In a day and age where pretence is everywhere and ostentatious attitudes dominate the charts, this three piece string band manages to do the improbable: tow tradition while also offering a reassuring change of pace. New Times recently spoke with the group's newest member, Ben Plasse, about the band's rootsy inclinations.
New Times: What inspires your fascination with traditional music?
Ben Plasse: Well, there are lots of things that make the old music more fascinating than most new music for me. For starters, that those old tunes have always been linked closely with dancing. I think in a lot of modern music there's too much emphasis on originality. You end up with too many chords, too many words, too many people trying to have their part stand out. Older music was all about people grooving on something together, so their friends could twirl their troubles away.
Plus, traditional music has proven to be sustainable, and not a fad. It goes a long way for your mindset. When you're broke, and on the road, and your transmission dies, it's good to know that there are festivals out there that have been running successfully for over 40 years. I just don't see there being emo pop festivals 40 years from now, but then, who knows? (laughs).
Can you give us an idea of your collective musical influences?
I love bent notes. I like things a little gritty, a little out of tune, never quite perfect. I try to draw inspiration from anyone I can, especially when I hear that old soul in it... People who can incorporate lots of styles, yet give it a cohesive personal vibe, like a good gumbo where all the ingredients make sense together. Doc Watson was probably the best at that. I never get bored listening to one of his albums, because he could take so many styles, and weave them together so well. Doc is the best.
What allows you to tow the line between traditional trappings and a modern sensibility?
(Laughs) Hopefully we do tow the line! That's our goal, anyway. Brendan was kinda the perfect producer for us in that way, because he's not trapped by any of that. To him, it was all just Howlin' Brothers music, and he just wanted to get the best recordings, and best performances of all our new songs.
Does it bother you when people refer to you as a bluegrass band?
No, not at all. I grew up in Massachusetts, and until I was about 20-years-old, I just called anything with a banjo or fiddle "bluegrass" out of ignorance. I can't fault anyone for not being exposed to something, because that's how I arrived when I first moved to Nashville. There's much worse things people can call you. (laughs)