Front Country keeps its signature sound amid lineup changes
When San Francisco-based Front Country burst on the scene a few years ago with high profile festival appearances and contest wins, sources as varied as the BBC and jam-band bluegrass faves Railroad Earth heralded them as the best new bluegrass band around. Known for their standout lead singer, crack instrumentalists and knack for mixing originals, traditionals and unexpectedly bluegrassified covers, Front Country gained a reputation as a spirited and engaging band unafraid to try new things.
This openness to change has stood them in good stead as both their sound and, most recently, lineup have evolved. Front Country will bring their updated lineup to a series of shows in California and the UK starting this week.
Front Country recently become a full-time touring band, prompting amicable departures of their founding banjo player and bassist. Guitarist Jacob Groopman said in a recent interview with the iPinion Syndicate that it’s been a “good change” for the band and “luckily our sound is still the same and we still sound like Front Country. That was a big question going into these lineup changes.”
That Front Country sound is anchored by Melody Walker’s vibrant, rich and confident lead vocals. The American folk, rock and bluegrass she grew up listening to remains “a very natural part of me,” she said, but the folkloric call and response chants of the African Diaspora, Afro-Cuban, Afro-Brazilian and West and South African music she studied in college are “a huge influence on the way I approach vocals.”
While Front Country started in 2011 as a bluegrass band and is still rooted there, Groopman said that’s not how they primarily think of themselves now.
“We all bring a ton of influences to the table and love many styles of music,” he said. “However we have to be careful not to be all over the place with the types of songs we play. Keeping a ‘thread’ throughout what we play is important and allows us to distill and pick and choose what we do.”
Bluegrass instrumentation is one of those common threads, even in songs that draw on rock, gospel, jam-band, country and jazz influences. “We definitely miss Jordan (Klein) and the banjo,” said Groopman, “but having a five-piece band has opened up the sound a bit and is easier to tour with. We still have a banjo in the mix and pass it around between Melody, Adam (Roszkiewicz) and I during a show. I’m also playing a Dobro these days which helps.” And what of new member Jeremy Darrow? “His bass playing is awesome,” pronounced Groopman, adding that Darrow fits well into the space left by original bassist Zach Sharpe.
While the instruments are classic bluegrass ones, Front Country thrives on finding novel arrangements. For example, the streams of notes Leif Karlstrom weaves through songs speak more of violin than country fiddle, and Roszkiewicz’s mandolin frequently stands in for a snare drum, driving the more percussive songs.
With two releases already to their credit, Front Country has a new covers EP due out early next year, and plans to unveil some of those songs at upcoming shows. They are also starting work on a new album of original songs.
Walker and Roszkiewicz are the primary songwriters within the band. Roszkiewicz, who is also a member of the Grammy-nominated Modern Mandolin Quartet, Ger Mandolin Orchestra and (with Karlstrom) Small Town Therapy, supplies Front Country with intricate and layered instrumentals. Walker’s songs have a certain groove to them, and some (such as the crowd-pleasing “Gold Rush Goddess”) have a saucy swagger.
“I write all kinds of strange little songs, many of which I release to a small group of fans on my Patreon page,” Walker said, “but only maybe one in ten is right for Front Country. As our sound evolves, I think more of my tunes that wouldn’t have worked before will become a part of that future Front Country sound. We are in the process of looking at a lot of my song demos for the next album, and I’m really excited about that process.”
What else might be in store for Front Country? Hard to predict. Said Groopman, “We’re always batting around ideas for new things to try!”
For more information, frontcountryband.com and the venues’ websites.
Front Country’s upcoming tour dates:
10/23/15: The Palms Playhouse, Winters, CA palmsplayhouse.com/
10/25/15: Benefit for Berkeley Animal Care Services, Freight and Salvage, Berkeley, CA freightandsalvage.org/
10/29/15: Moe’s Alley, Santa Cruz, CA (with the McCoy Tyler Band), http://www.moesalley.com/
10/30/15: Zodiacs, Petaluma, CA (with Steep Ravine), zodiacspetaluma.com/
10/31/15: BOOGRASS Hillbilly Halloween at Slim’s, San Francisco, CA slimspresents.com
11/4/15: The Atkinson, Southport, UK theatkinson.co.uk/whats-on/events/
11/5/15: Centenary Centre, Isle of Mann, UK centenarycentre.com/whatson.php
11/6/15: Selby Town Hall, North Yorkshire, UK selbytownhall.co.uk/whats-on-selby.php
11/7/15: Saltburn Arts Centre, Saltburn-by-the-Sea, Kendal, UK breweryarts.co.uk/music/
11/8/15: Harbour Arts Centre, Irving, UK harbourartscentre.com
11/9/16: Kilbarchan Performing Arts Centre Memorial Hall, Kilbarchan, Scotland UK scottishtheatre.org/
11/11/15: Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline, UK onfife.com/venues/carnegie-hall
11/12/15: Birnam Arts Centre, Perthshire, UK birnamarts.com/whats-birnam-arts/
11/13/15: Glenbuchat Hall, Aberdeenshire, UK
11/14/15: Universal Hall, Findhorn, UK
11/15/15: Dundee Acoustic Music Club, Dundee, UK
11/17/15: The Harrison, Kings Cross, London, UK harrisonbar.co.uk/
11/19/15: Norwich Arts Centre, Norwich, UK norwichartscentre.co.uk
11/20/15: Tuppenny Barn, West Sussex, UK eventful.com/venues/tuppeny-barn-/
11/21/15: The Square & Compass, Dorset, UK squareandcompasspub.co.uk
11/22/15: South Holland Centre, Lincolnshire UK southhollandcentre.co.uk
1/1/16: Crystal Bay Club, Crystal Bay, NV (with Leftover Salmon) crystalbaycasino.com/
1/2/16: Crystal Bay Club, Crystal Bay, NV (with Leftover Salmon) crystalbaycasino.com/