The current Coen brothers film “Inside Llewyn Davis” portrays the lengths to which a musician will go to get the opportunity to play old American songs on an acoustic guitar for a few dozen listeners in a small room.
Jackson Emmer, Sam Moss and Evan Cory Levine probably can relate to the character Llewyn Davis. The three have basically blocked out the month of February to devote themselves to playing well-worn tunes on fiddle, acoustic guitar and upright bass in the cozy space of Justice Snow’s. The trio, appearing under the name The Howling Kettles, will launch an Americana Music Series at the venue, inside the Wheeler Opera House, on Sunday. Through the month, they will play every Sunday and Wednesday night, putting a different branch of American roots music under the spotlight each week. The residency begins with bluegrass, old-time and country this week and moves into jazz, swing and ragtime, and then blues, before ending with a week that will mix a variety of American styles. All shows are free and begin at 9 p.m.
Emmer has lived in Aspen for more than a year, but Moss and Levine have uprooted themselves for the gigs. Moss left a job in a stringed-instrument shop in Vermont to spend the month in Aspen, while Levine, a full-time musician, lives in Philadelphia. A good deal of preparation has gone into the series to make it more than a string of gigs: The Howling Kettles rounded up sponsors for the shows, including Jazz Aspen Snowmass, Glenwood Music and several Colorado spirit makers. The liquor companies — Woody Creek Distillers, Leopold Brothers, Spring 44 and Peach Street Distillers — will have their products featured in custom drinks designed by Justice Snow’s “cocktail mechanic” Joshua-Peter Smith.
Emmer, Moss and Levine, all in their 20s, share a taste for unfussy, old songs that have a distinctive American flavor, and that shared interest has formed a deep bond.
“We love playing together, but we live so far away,” Emmer said. “We had to invent some way to make it happen. The best tool seemed to be a concert series, surveying all these styles of American music.”
The trio’s roots go back to 2007, when Emmer was a student at Bennington College in Vermont and got an itch to put together a gypsy-swing combo.
“I didn’t know that music, but I knew I wanted to learn it,” he said.
Emmer was steered to Moss, a Bennington freshman who had studied the gypsy style as a high school student.
“Just dumb luck I happened to run into him at that time,” said Emmer, who formed a duo with Moss.
While playing a solo gig at a club called the Spotty Dog in Hudson, N.Y., Emmer was guided toward another musician who would fall right into step with him.
“People told me I needed to meet Evan Levine. Sure enough, Evan is just knocking it out of the park, changing the room with every note,” Emmer said.
Levine often would sit in when Emmer came to Hudson, and once, in 2012, when Emmer and Moss were playing as a duo at the Spotty Dog, they saw the potential in a trio.
“Evan opened for us, and our heads came off,” Emmer said. “It was virtuosic and great — a cannon of a musician. We’re used to playing farmers markets, where there’s no competition — you’re a string band; you’re going to do great. In a bar, the expectations are low. Evan upped the ante, made it more engaging with each note.”
That summer, they did a week of shows as a trio. Afterward, Emmer and Moss asked Levine to produce their album, “The Parlor Is Pleasant on Sunday Night,” of songs from the public domain, including “Hesitation Blues,” “St. James Infirmary” and “Skip to My Lou.”
The three say that it is not the age of the songs alone they find attractive but the things that come with age. The tunes they play are those that have survived, that have enduring value.
“We get to go through the past and sift through everything we like,” Levine said. “It’s not the attraction of old music; it’s the attraction of quality music. And these songs are written in a way that they can be flexible. They’ve been fiddled — one person adds a piece, and it sticks, and then it’s a better song.”
The Howling Kettles intend to be part of that tradition of making old songs feel up to date.
“We’re not interested in authentic re-enactments,” Moss said. “This music still feels true.
“W.C. Handy tunes, Gillian Welch, bluegrass songs with no writer’s name on it, a song Sam wrote — anything that rings true is up for grabs,” Emmer said. “It’s not that it’s traditional so much as it’s raw party music, social music that was meant to be listened to.”
Llewyn Davis, from the Coen brothers film, had his own way of putting the same sentiment; it could be called the tagline of “Inside Llewyn Davis”: “If it was never new, and it never gets old, it’s a folk song.”