Friends of the Devil

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
The roots music band Devil Makes Three, with Cooper McBean, plays Saturday at Belly Up.
Stewart Oksenhorn The Aspen Times |

Pete Bernhard and Cooper McBean are getting significantly less weird.

Back when the two were childhood friends, both from small towns in southern Vermont, they were far out of the mainstream as far as music was concerned. Bernhard had adopted his father’s love of old blues — Little Walter and Lightnin’ Hopkins; electric guitarists including Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters; and guys like Bob Dylan who were influenced heavily by the earlier bluesmen. McBean leaned more toward the country side: Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys. What they had in common was that they were pretty much the only ones their age in the greater Brattleboro area paying attention to those styles.

“That’s one of the reasons we were friends,” the 34-year-old Bernhard said. “No one else was interested in playing that music or even listening to it. People just thought we were weird.”

Things have changed. Over the past 15 years or so — possibly as a reaction to the ever-accelerating progress of the technological realm; or the rise of musicians like Chris Thile, Béla Fleck, Alison Krauss and Sam Bush, who brought roots styles into the present; or the massive success of 2000’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack; or the expansion of festivals devoted to traditional breeds of music; or the formation in 1985 of the International Bluegrass Music Association — the appreciation of roots sounds has increased noticeably. Festivals small and large devoted to acoustic music are everywhere. Bluegrass pickers are more likely to be roundly admired than poked fun at. And The Devil Makes Three, a trio featuring Bernhard and McBean on acoustic guitars and banjos, along with stand-up bassist Lucia Turino, has become a draw on the club and festival circuit.

Bernhard has his own theory on why roots music has seen such an uptick in popularity, and it is a simple one. “I think it’s because it’s great,” he said from his home in Vermont. “Traditional music is one of the best things we have in this country.”

With that recognition, groups like The Devil Makes Three have become vastly more common and popular.

“When we first started playing, no one wanted to hear it,” Bernhard said. “We couldn‘t find places to play. Even the bluegrass people didn’t accept us.”

The bluegrass folks now readily embrace The Devil Makes Three; the band had a well-received appearance last year at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The appreciation is even wider than that. The Devil Makes Three has appeared as an opening act at Red Rocks and has headlined at the Palisade Bluegrass & Roots Music Festival. Its current tour has them playing theaters and clubs from San Francisco to New York City. On Saturday, they headline at Belly Up in their Aspen debut.

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Bernhard and McBean met when they were both 12, and in high school, propelled by their shared oddball tastes, they began playing music together. Bernhard’s early influences were his father, who adored Lightnin’ Hopkins, and his older brother, a music student who, learning of Pete’s affinity, brought home albums by Robert Johnson and Willie Dixon. His next big influence was McBean, whose love of country and jug-band music rubbed off on Bernhard.

“The two of us came together, shared a lot of records,” Bernhard said.

A little more than a decade ago, Bernhard moved to Olympia, Wash., to hook up with McBean and start a band together. The move didn’t go quite as planned — by the time Bernhard got out west, McBean was already in another group — but eventually the two started playing together. As a duo, they went on tour to Santa Cruz, Calif., and found another former classmate from Vermont, Turino, who had dropped out of college and was looking for something to do. She picked up the acoustic bass and the trio formed The Devil Makes Three.

Bernhard is unabashed about how backward-looking the band’s music is.

“The music is us trying to emulate all of our heroes. And it just happens that the people we love are mostly dead. When I was young, I didn’t like the music being made at the time,” he said. “We learned by ear, trying to play what our heroes played, and this is how it came out.”

But there’s more than mere mimicking the past. Before Bernhard and McBean moved west, the two made many trips to Boston, where, inevitably, the destination was a music club. And the music they witnessed wasn’t made on mandolins and banjos.

“Pretty much the only thing we went to Boston for was punk shows,” Bernhard said. “And we did that a lot when we moved to California. That influences the energy of our live shows.”

When The Devil Makes Three released their eponymous debut album, in 2002, the sound might have been a slightly punk-fueled take on 1920s Delta blues. But the songs were all originals, and the lyrics didn’t attempt to resurrect some bygone age.

“The lyrical content isn’t about hard-rock miners or a hobo or the things Woody Guthrie would have written about,” said Bernhard, the band’s primary singer and songwriter. “I try to avoid those things. I don’t like the idea of playing music as a historical re-enactment.”

Bernhard believes that, as a lyricist, he is doing just what Lightnin’ and Muddy did: “I read about the things that happen to me and people I know. It’s things I know about, am passionate about,” he said. “Woody Guthrie — that’s all he did. Storytelling with a beat behind it. The only thing that separates us is that now is not then.”

With this past week’s release of “I’m a Stranger Here,” their sixth album, The Devil Makes Three takes another step forward. The album was produced by Buddy Miller, who has worked recently with Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris and the late soul singer Solomon Burke. The album featured drums, horns and, on “40 Days,” an appearance by a horn section from New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

“It’s a very different record,” Bernhard said. “It’s got a lot more instrumentation. Buddy plays baritone and electric guitar. We have horn arrangements, drums, which we’ve never had before. I think it sounds different in a good way.”

The Devil Makes Three’s ultimate purpose for the music remains the same. They want listeners to take a look backwards, and appreciate something that came before and has stood up against the passing of time. And maybe join them in their club of the weird.

“My hope is to bring traditional music forward, into the future,” Bernhard said. “My hope is just that people will go back to the older music I love — Howlin’ Wolf and Townes Van Zandt and Hank Williams and the Rev. Gary Davis — and that everyone else would realize it was great.”