Sweet Sunny South finds good times in old-time
July 6, 2005
When a quartet of DJs from the Pickin’ Program, a bluegrass show on Paonia’s KVFN, decided to actually play, rather than just spin the tunes, they felt forced to emulate the music featured on the program.”We tried so hard to stay within the boundaries of bluegrass,” recalls guitarist Rob Miller, one of the founders of the acoustic foursome Sweet Sunny South. “We were so conscious of the traditions.”The emphasis on tradition was closely tied to the presence of Kevin Doert, Sweet Sunny South’s original banjoist, who played in the typical Earl Scruggs-style. Two years ago, however, Doert left the group. The replacement for the banjo hole was anything but typical: Bill Powers, the original mandolinist, borrowed a plectrum banjo, quite a different instrument than the five-string banjo used in bluegrass. Powers, a lefty, turned the banjo upside down, gave it a mandolin tuning, and played his invention with a pick, basically unheard of in bluegrass. Like that, Sweet Sunny South was freed from the bluegrass traditions.”He’s niched into this style of his, and he’s done a good job of it,” said Miller. “Traditionalists look kind of funny at that, but people come up real interested and really like the sound. It’s unique, all his own.”The turn in direction became complete when Sweet Sunny South got a call from Cory Krahl, an acoustic player from this side of McClure Pass, in the Roaring Fork Valley. Krahl put the phone up to the stereo, which was playing an old-time band from Tennessee called Reel Time Travelers. Krahl was pitching the band for a gig; Miller, who books acoustic concerts at Paonia’s Paradise Theatre through his Pickin’ Productions, didn’t hesitate to find a date for the Reel Time Travelers. That show became a signpost for Sweet Sunny South.
“They opened our eyes to old-time music,” said Miller. “But the cool thing was that they wrote original music, which was what we’ve always been about.”The group started focusing more on fiddle tunes. With fiddler Cory Obert at the center of the music; Powers playing his upside-down, oddly tuned, strangely played banjo; and Powers’ sweetie, Shelley Gray, taking over the bass duties from original bull fiddler Willy Kissler, they found a loosening of restraints that they hadn’t felt as a bluegrass band.”What’s cool about it is, it’s freed us up,” said Miller, fresh from harvesting the family’s garlic crop and having put his two young children down to nap. “Old time is freer; there aren’t too many rules. People don’t always sing in perfect harmony. We’re in that old-time category for sure, but we find a lot of freedom in that.”That feeling, said Miller, is reflected in Powers’ songwriting. Not confined by bluegrass rules, Powers has become a prolific writer, contributing seven tunes to Sweet Sunny South’s new CD, “Wild ‘n Swingin’,” released last month.Perhaps some of the freedom comes from the members’ backgrounds. Obert had been a fan of Gram Parsons-style country rock. Powers used to play electric guitar in rock bands. Gray has only been playing bass for a handful of years. And Miller, a native of Long Island, N.Y., has been in punk and New Wave bands all over the West.For all those influences, and all that freedom, “Wild ‘n Swingin'” hews to standard notions of old-time music. Apart from the remix version of the album’s opening tune “Four Eyed Boy,” which appears unlisted as the closing track, “Wild ‘n Swingin'” is all acoustic, and wouldn’t be out of place on the most traditional of acoustic-music stages. The album features mostly original tunes. True to old-time ways, the album focuses on group renderings of the songs, rather than the revved-up instrumental breaks that dominate bluegrass.”A big difference between old-time and bluegrass is bluegrass is a lot about improvisational instrumental breaks, solos played by one musician,” said Miller. “In old-time, it’s straight-up melody, played in unison.”Miller says Sweet Sunny South has been blessed with good luck. It was formed just before the soundtrack from the 2000 film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” landed acoustic music on the top of the charts. Since switching over to old-time, they have found that the style, reminiscent of bluegrass but conveying a different feeling, is embraced as a separate, almost exotic, niche.
“It seems like old-time is what people want,” said Miller. “When you get in a festival and you’re the only old-time band with 12 bluegrass bands, people notice us.”Sweet Sunny South has gotten enough recognition, and bookings, to become a full-time act. Last fall, Miller quit his job as a medical supplies salesman. When their shop burned down, Powers and Gray took it as a cue to downscale their business, manufacturing antler chandeliers and mica lampshades. Obert is a part-time building contractor.This last year has been a banner one for the group. With appearances at the Four Corners Folk Festival, the Lake City Wine Festival, the Durango Meltdown and the Silverton Jubilee, Sweet Sunny South has hit what Miller calls the “trifecta” of southern Colorado bluegrass festivals. (He underestimates the band’s achievement by one.) The band is making deep inroads in this valley. Last week, billed as Four Eyed Boy, the quartet played on Aspen Mountain for the Bluegrass Sundays series; they return this week under their usual guise. They play the noon slot at Carbondale Mountain Fair on Saturday, July 30, and follow with a gig at Steve’s Guitars that night.There is, of course, one crowning stage to add to the band’s list: Telluride Bluegrass. Sweet Sunny South is opting to stick to tradition with that goal; they are working on employing a booking agent before approaching Planet Bluegrass, the organization that runs the Telluride festival.”That’s what we’re waiting for with Telluride,” said Miller. “You’ve got to go in like that.”In other acoustic news …Sweet Sunny South opens a fine run of bluegrass and related music atop old Ajax. Two High String Band, led by Billy and Bryn Bright, is set for July 17. Hit & Run, the fine Colorado quintet, plays July 24. July 31 brings Boston’s Crooked Still, which features cellist Rushad Eggleston. Eggleston turned heads with his groundbreaking cello playing last fall at the Wheeler Opera House, as part of the Darol Anger American Fiddle Ensemble. The group’s recent CD, “Hip Hop,” is definitely worth a listen.
Tony Furtado brings his own bag of acoustic tricks – banjo, slide guitar – and his band, the American Gypsies, to Fanny Hill on Thursday, July 14. The former Coloradan recently released the live solo, acoustic CD, “Bare Bones.”Joining Sweet Sunny South at Mountain Fair are Colorado rock/bluegrass group Oakhurst (Friday, July 29), and supergroup Blue Highway (Sunday, July 31).And if that’s not enough picking for the month, the Belly Up’s July calendar concludes with California’s Hot Buttered Rum String Band on July 31.In an interview with The Aspen Times two weeks ago, Blues Traveler bassist Tad Kinchla said that the band has recovered. Recovered from the 1999 death of founding bassist Bobby Sheehan, recovered from the unexpected pop success of its song “Runaround,” and all the extremes that followed. Kinchla said that Blues Traveler is now a contented unit.Those words rang true at the band’s July 1 concert at the Belly Up. A rare small-club date, Blues Traveler used the Aspen gig as a warmup for their annual Fourth of July bash at Red Rocks. Frontman John Popper introduced a host of new songs, informing the sold-out crowd that it was the second time these songs were being played for an audience.Everything played by the group, including the new material, went over well with the audience. Despite the continuing emergence of Kinchla as a songwriter, Popper remains the band’s sole frontman, a role that still suits Popper perfectly. Popper was wildly animated on harmonica and vocals, thrashing about to coax rapid-fire singing and fantastically tuneful harmonica solos from his large being, and joking continually with the fans. Kinchla and his brother, founding guitarist Chan, backed him with grooves that were harder and heavier than found in most jam bands, but still contained a happy vibe.Easily the highlight of the show was “The Mountains Win Again.” The fans seemed to respond to the appropriate theme, and perhaps to the fact that the late Sheehan, a frequent visitor to Aspen, probably wrote it with these mountains in mind. The enthusiasm was balanced by a hushed respect for the relatively soft, slow song, making for an exquisite musical moment.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com