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High Country Hard Core: 49 Winchester and Town Mountain

This week’s show poses a question. What would Southern rock sound like in Appalachia, where hard-edged, working-class country music meets high lonesome history? I pursue answers through matched interviews with members of Town Mountain and 49 Winchester, longstanding bands from the high country of North Carolina and Virginia respectively that both made label debuts this year on leading Americana company New West Records. The albums sound great back to back, and the bands tell a story about Blue Ridge Mountain music culture in the 21st century.

49 Winchester had a breakout year in 2022 after more than seven years of incessant touring and hard work on their bandcraft out of their home in tiny Castlewood, VA. They were lifelong friends who started jamming in high school and rather quickly determined they were going to put themselves out there wherever they could play. Lead singer Isaac Gibson says his first ever performance as a vocalist in front of any stranger was 49’s first gig. Fortunately for all involved, he’s a natural singer, with the same kind of soul and gravel that’s made Chris Stapleton a household name.

“I picked most of that up the hard way, you know, onstage just constant gigging, constant touring, constant traveling,” says Gibson about the blend of power and nuance in his voice “And I think we've all grown so much in our instrument, whether it's the guitars, or Chase (Chafin) on bass, or Noah (Patrick) on steel. Like everything is just constantly evolving and improving for us. And that's always been our mantra. Our only goal is just to wake up and do better than we did yesterday - and do that forever.”

The band’s fourth album Fortune Favors The Bold arrived in May, setting up a triumphant year. They debuted on the Grand Ole Opry. They drew a massive headline crowd at this fall’s Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, a festival where they’ve played annually as favorite regional sons. And they played their first show at the Ryman Auditorium on a bill with the Turnpike Troubadours. Having seen that set from the seventh row I can attest to its power and the bond between band and crowd. On stage and on record, 49 Winchester hits hard but leaves musical space and conjures melodies that sink in. The album’s about pride of place, possibilities, dreaming big and the pleasures of the honky tonk. It will be noted as one of the year’s best Americana releases as the lists begin to emerge, I suspect.

49 Winchester

Town Mountain came into being as a bluegrass band devoted to old school passion and original songwriting. In their early albums and regular shows in Nashville, I heard the mesmerizing swing and brassy attitude of Jimmy Martin, alive in a new century. A few years ago, they started working with drummer Miles Miller, from the band and world of Sturgill Simpson, and they’ve been on an evolutionary path ever since, culminating in the refreshed country rock sound of their October release Lines In The Levee. The string band instrumentation remained the same - all acoustic bluegrass tools - but the vibe feels electric.

“I feel like classic rock and roll and, and honky tonk has always been a huge influence on our sound,” says mandolinist Phil Barker in our conversation. “In the last few albums, we've kind of dabbled with adding a snare drum and then maybe a full kit on some of the songs and then more recently, we've just kind of been wanting to fully realize that sound and kind of make it bigger.”

Also in on the interview is Jesse Langlais, who as banjo player, may have the deepest stake in the bluegrass heritage of Town Mountain. “We've always written material that pushes boundaries. And oftentimes, we wouldn't ever even be able to bring a lot of that material to the table, because we were still stuck in that old mindset, the town mountain of 10 years ago,” he says. Once the drummer went from an occasional experiment to a solid addition, “we knew it was going to open up a lot of musical possibilities.”

Robert Greer, the guitar player and a particularly enthralling country singer, says in the album’s bio that “This is the sound we’ve been working towards since the inception of the band.”

Lines In The Levee can conjure echoes of The Band and Willie Nelson’s timeless ensemble. And it makes full use of the band’s three lead voices and songwriters in Greer, Barker and Langlais. “Distant Line” features Jesse on an easy roller that meshes banjo and accordion behind a song about living with integrity and principle. Geer, besides bringing the punchy title track, sings lead on Barker’s song in the boogie grass “Firebound Road.” Phil takes a witty, danceable turn on the Tex-Mex waltz “Daydream Quarantina” inspired by the boredom of the lockdown in 2020.

The releases on New West were coincidental, but it seemed like another reason to combine these band stories into one episode, recorded in a single day during AmericanaFest at New West headquarters in Berry Hill.

Emma Delevante
Town Mountain

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>