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Three Tall Pines Branch Out

22 September 2012

Earlier this summer, the Boston-based group Three Tall Pines posted a video of an infectious ditty called “Going to Grey Fox.” Where better then to catch up with this quartet than at their home-away-from-home, The Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival?

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJQcYg9SHx0 w=427&h=240]

Like so much of the best stuff that happens at Grey Fox and other fests, this performance took place away from the stages— just a beautiful moment in the early evening captured among tents and trailers.

Songwriting is a particular strong suit of this group. The composition in this video is “Tire Chains,” an original tune that can be found on the band’s 2011 release, All That’s Left. With its evocation of small town and rural life, its loping rhythms and its twangy vocals, “Tire Chains” offers a good introduction to the world of Three Tall Pines. While these guys are very much part of Boston’s burgeoning roots music scene, they don’t seem to share some of their compatriots conflicted relationship with bluegrass. As their Grey Fox anthem suggests, they answered that high and lonesome call long ago. They have been baptized in bluegrass, washed in the blood not just of murder ballads and fiddle tunes but also more contemporary strains of the music. Indeed, overall, their sound seems more a product of soaking up the currents of the last twenty years of bluegrass, country and Americana music than the study of folk traditions. To put it another way, I hear more Steve Earle and David Rawlings in their songs than Dock Boggs and Robert Johnson.

As I mentioned in an earlier post from this year’s Grey Fox Festival, a generational shift seems underway at that sprawling confab of musicians and music fans. With the passing away of so many pioneers of bluegrass, the mantel of elder statesperson has been passed to the generation of Sam Bush and Tim O’Brien, leaving room for an army of twenty-somethings to stake their claim to the music. Three Tall Pines are definitely soldiers in that army, but they’re not at war with the generation that came before them.

At the very end of the “Tire Chains” video, you can hear someone say, “Bill Keith,” as if to acknowledge the good vibrations that came from recording in the shadow of Bill Keith’s iconic teepee, the beige structure visible directly behind the band. Keith’s musical approach, which shifted the emphasis away from chord patterns and toward melodic and chromatic runs, transformed banjo playing in the 1960’s. Once a Young Turk, today Keith is a benevolent godfather and guru to the generation of Three Tall Pines, Della Mae, The Get Down Boys and many other acts. His teepee is therefore a fitting symbol of the bluegrass tradition, a culture that at once endures and evolves.

How many members would a group called Three Tall Pines have? It’s a trick question on a couple of counts. For starters, the band consists of four pickers: Dan Bourdeau (guitar and vocals), Joe Lurgio (mandolin and vocals), Conor Smith (fiddle and harmony vocals) and newcomer Nick DiSebastian (bass and harmony vocals). But the group also draws on a circle of friends and collaborators, most notably Avi Salloway, who has worked with them as both sideman and producer. That’s Salloway you see on slide steel guitar and harmony vocals in the video. Salloway is currently working with Three Tall Pines on a new album, so depending on how you count, expect to hear more from this trio, quartet or quintet soon.

Yer Pal— Curly

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