One of the most common criticisms of bluegrass is that it all sounds the same. I’ve even made that complaint myself at times. But watching Town Mountain and The Lil’ Smokies recently perform at The Birchmere, you weren’t seeing two bands that sounded much alike. Each has a distinct personality and sound.
Some of this difference comes down to recent changes Town Mountain has made to move in the direction of Americana. They’ve added drums, and they used an electric bass. They also had pedal steel, which typically isn’t used in bluegrass. The Lil’ Smokies, in contrast, have a more traditional setup: it’s all acoustic, with guitar, dobro, mandolin, fiddle, and upright bass.
The Birchmere has a long and storied history when it comes to bluegrass. It’s the foundation the venue was built on, around acts like the Seldom Scene. During their set on Oct. 3, one of the members of Town Mountain recalled taking in a show more than 20 years ago, where JD Crowe and the Seldom Scene performed. He described a wild night, with costumes and the consumption of psilocybin. I knew these guys were fun!
Each band played for about an a hour and a half, with Town Mountain going up first. They’re touring behind their most recent record, Lines In The Levee, which they released last year. Their set featured several tracks from the album, including the title cut, “American Family,” “Comeback Kid,” and “American Family.” “Daydream Quarantine,” they explained, is about trying to write a song while we were all in lockdown early in the pandemic.
Stream “American Family” by Town Mountain on YouTube:
Every time I’ve seen Town Mountain, they’ve thrown in a couple of covers. Introducing “Snowin’ on Raton,” they remarked on the fact that the late Townes Van Zandt performed several times at The Birchmere. Their other cover was a twangy reworking of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” which is always welcome. Other songs included “Firebird,” “Texas – New Mexico Line,” and “Rene,” which they described as the “most sensitive” number they do.
One thing the two bands had in common was that they eschewed the usual frontman/lead singer dynamic in favor of spreading the vocals out to several members of the band. It kept things lively and kept my attention on the show.
I’d not seen The Lil’ Smokies before, and they really impressed me with their playing. Originally from Missoula, Montana (perhaps not the most likely place to spawn a bluegrass band), they said they’re now from “all over.”
The band opened their set with “Fortunes,” and they, too, had an eclectic bunch of covers in their set: Guy Clark and Shawn Camp’s “Rain In Durango,” the Police’s “Message In A Bottle,” and Justin Townes Earle’s “Harlem River Blues.” Their set included a new song, along with “Ms. Marnie,” “Kansas City,” “Mending the Fences” (which featured a really nice duet between the fiddle and the dobro), “California,” and “The City.” The threw in one more cover in their encore, Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” and finished the show with “Decades.”
Watch The Lil’ Smokies perform “Decades” live at the Bluebird via YouTube:
This was a great showcase for two fine bluegrass bands. It was in the best and finest traditions of The Birchmere, with supremely skilled picking. Bluegrass almost always delivers on the skill of the players, and Oct. 3 was no exception.
Here are some photos of Town Mountain performing at The Birchmere on Oct. 3, 2023. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Ari Strauss.
Here are some photos of The Lil’ Smokies performing at The Birchmere on Oct. 3, 2023. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Ari Strauss.