With a cigarette dangling from his bottom lip, Robert Greer focuses intently on restringing his Martin D-18 acoustic guitar. Sporting a scruffy beard, camouflage hunting shirt, work pants and trucker hat with “Keel” (as in bluegrass guitar wizard Larry Keel) emblazoned on it, Greer finishes the job and the cigarette.
It’s day three at the Suwannee Spring Reunion, the Florida celebration of Americana and bluegrass, and Greer’s band Town Mountain is on the bill. The Asheville, North Carolina, quintet is a rapidly-rising string ensemble, despite being more rock & roll than bluegrass and more honky-tonk than country.
“We’re a bluegrass band, for sure. But I think the feel of the songs is rock & roll,” Greer says backstage. “Maybe it’s part of the evolution of the music. People are being more creative, writing their own stuff, and with so many influences in the digital age.”
Call it an evolution or a revolution, but it’s clear that Town Mountain is at the forefront.
Formed in Asheville in 2005 by Greer and banjoist Jesse Langlais (the only remaining original members), Town Mountain includes Phil Barker (mandolin), Bobby Britt (fiddle) and Zach Smith (stand-up bass). In 2013, the ensemble received the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Momentum Award for Band of the Year, a recognition that has put Town Mountain on its current trajectory — one that straddles the touring circuit of traditional down-home bluegrass festivals and back-alley dive bars.
“There was a time early on in our career when we were pretty worried about trying to fit into this bluegrass mold and do things that would appeal to this one certain audience,” Barker says. “But our music is outside of those borders. Some of those bluegrass audiences can be really judgmental about what you’re doing. And at the end of the day, it’s music — we’re just playing the music that we like listening to.”
Though the foundation of Town Mountain’s sound is a straightforward bluegrass tone — one where the instruments chug along in unison like a freight train — it’s the vocals and presence of the band that pulls in the listener. Aside from the three-part vocal harmonies of Greer, Langlais and Barker, the singers are very distinct in their individual approach. Barker has a free-flowing jam-grass feel, while Langlais offers a traditional lonesome sound. Greer comes across the way “The King of Bluegrass” Jimmy Martin did — with a belly full of fire eager to kick the band and audience into overdrive.
But there is also a heart-on-the-sleeve sentimentality to the band that can be traced directly to Bruce Springsteen. Back in 2008, on the album Heroes & Heretics, the group even tipped its cap to the songwriter with a cover of “I’m on Fire,” a tune now regularly requested at Town Mountain shows since their rendition went viral.
Like the characters in Springsteen’s songs, Town Mountain knows what it’s like to pursue big dreams in small towns. Though currently an independent band (unsigned with self-distribution via CD Baby), their latest album New Freedom Blues has helped them break out of Asheville by garnering acclaim from critics and fans alike. Of particular note is the final track “Down Low,” featuring a cameo by songwriter sensation Tyler Childers, a longtime friend of the group.
“We’ve got a strong connection with Lexington, Kentucky, and we met Tyler there at shows we played. He was 19 at the time. The first we heard him sing, we knew this kid was something special,” Barker says. “He used to play these ‘tweener sets’ during our shows. We’re tapping into the crowd that Tyler has tapped into, this authentic country sound. And Tyler has a lot of bluegrass influences. People are appreciating authentic country music, which is something we’re a big believer in.”
Originally from Brevard, North Carolina, just down the road from Asheville, Greer took off to Virginia to work as a U.S. history teacher for high school juniors at a boarding school. He then worked in the outdoor program at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, but that didn’t last long.
“I wasn’t into it at all. I was a terrible employee, and that’s when I got the opportunity to come back down to Asheville and play music,” Greer says. “It’s what I’ve been doing ever since, and that’s always been the goal.”
Greer moved to Asheville when he was 27. He’s 45 now, and that deep urge to create and perform music has only grown stronger with age.
“That’s when you know it’s a true passion, you know?” he says. “That there’s nothing that’s going to keep you from doing it, that you’d be off-balance if you didn’t do what you love doing — that’s the way I feel about music.”
Once in Asheville, Greer quickly befriended Langlais and the duo roomed together in an apartment at the base of Town Mountain, which quietly overlooks the city’s downtown core and gives the band its name.
“When we first started the band, it was a ‘good time Charlie’ kind of thing. We didn’t have a business plan and it was really slow at first,” Greer says. “We did things like go and play in Colorado and California, which didn’t make any financial sense. But we just wanted to see if we could do it. We finally attracted booking agents, things got more serious, the shows got bigger, and here we are today.”
With Asheville and greater Western North Carolina a centuries-old haven for bluegrass and old-time mountain music, the members of Town Mountain each flocked to the city in their own time, all headed to the source of that “high, lonesome sound.”
“Spiritually, you know that acoustic music has been played in those mountains for a lot of years. You hear old-timers at jams and you can connect with how the environment inspired the music — that need for community and something to get together over,” Barker says. “It’s the honesty of the music. You can’t hide behind anything.”
Now some 14 years into it, Town Mountain are a long way down an even longer road. But the band is still focused on one basic goal: deliver a rousing, engaging and sometimes challenging live performance. For Greer and co., it’s all about the show.
“We’ve been clawing our way along. We had no advantages in this business. We didn’t have any connections. Everything we’ve made was from being on the road and meeting people,” Greer says. “I think once you cross the threshold of it all, there’s no coming back from it.”