When David Grisman brought his Quintet to the Granby Theater last November, folks who came to hear Grisman’s “dawg music” blend of bluegrass and jazz were pleasantly surprised by the energy, enthusiasm and spirited good timeyness of the opening act, Town Mountain, from Asheville, North Carolina. It turns out Town Mountain has a connection to this area—lead singer and guitarist Robert Greer is the son of William T. Greer, Jr., the popular president of Virginia Wesleyan College.
So the obvious question is: How does the son of a college president turn out to be a bluegrass musician?
“That’s a good question,” Robert Greer replied when I asked recently. “I’ve been singing my whole life. Nobody really plays instruments in my family though my dad plays a little piano. I got sick of asking people to accompany me while I was singing, so I figured I better learn how to play the guitar. Bluegrass was a big interest of mine at the time, so I started playing the songs that I liked, and it just happened to be a bunch of bluegrass and country songs.”
Greer, who brings his band to his dad’s school for a concert Friday night, then travels over the Bay Bridge-Tunnel for a Sunday afternoon show at the Palace Theatre in Cape Charles, grew up with an eclectic soundtrack at home.
“My parents liked all sorts of music,” he said. “They’re big classical music fans. But Dad, in particular, loves country music. When I was a little boy, they’d have parties at the college he was working at, and a lot of times there’d be a bluegrass band playing. Dad had a lot of influence on that I’m sure. I wasn’t submersed in it by any means, but I’ve been around it.
“Pretty much everybody in our band is that way—they didn’t grow up around bluegrass and most of us didn’t grow up playing music. Our bass player, Barrett Smith, is the guy who’s been playing the longest. He’s actually a lifelong guitar player; he was a classical guitar major at UNC—Chapel Hill. We’re completely underutilizing the guy!”
Robert moved here with his family the summer after he graduated from high school in 1992. He went to Wesleyan for a while, but graduated from Wofford. He didn’t start playing guitar himself, though, until he was out of college.
“I got my guitar for my twenty-fifth birthday,” he said, “and I tinkered around on it for a year or so. Even in that first year I wrote a song or two. I write about things that are happening in my life, or somebody close to me. A lot of times it’s relationship oriented. The first song I wrote was about one of my younger brother’s girlfriends who was kinda doing him wrong.”
He cites several country and bluegrass legends as his primary musical role models.
“A lot of them have changed,” he said, “but there have been some constant ones as well. Those are guys like George Jones, Keith Whitley and Tony Rice. My singing is more of a country-bluesy type thing. I’m more of a ‘high lonesome’ bluegrass singer, if you’re hip to what that means—kind of a Jimmy Martin-Del McCoury thing. The higher, edgier side of the vocals is my approach to singing bluegrass.
“When we’re playing a country song, I’m hearing George Jones—I’ve always loved his voice—and Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. I’ve been interested in those guys a long time.”
One of the band’s most immediately obvious trademarks is their one-microphone style of singing and playing. It’s like watching the old Martha White Flour Hour, with the five Town Mountaineers leaning in to sing those sweet bluegrass harmonies, then backing away to let each instrumental soloist step forward.
“Running that one mike is easier to get a better mix,” Greer explained. “It’s less hassle. You don’t have to use monitors, so you don’t have as much hardware to carry around. You’re right there in each other’s faces when you’re singing, so you can hear each other and hear exactly what’s going on.
“And it’s the old school way of doing it. That’s something that’s real appealing to all of us, with the swooping in and weaving in and out of each other. It’s kind of a choreography going on. You know, it’s boring being glued to one microphone all night long, not being able to move around. So this frees that up.”
Greer and his bandmates are constantly expanding their repertoire.
“All of the songs on our CD except one were written by somebody in the band. There was a period a couple of years ago when I had just broken up with a girl and I went on a tear, four songs in twenty four hours. They would just be poems, basically, and I’d give them to Jesse our banjo player. And sometimes he would come up with chord progressions that I liked, and then I would do the rest. It really helped working with somebody else. And we’ve done a little of that since.”
They’re planning to record the two gigs this weekend for a possible live album. And they continue to grow their audience through the internet and live concert appearances:
“Playing and performance is the name of the game. We really are trying to stay away from the stereotypical bluegrass path. That means staying away from a lot of those regional bluegrass festivals. We’re interested in playing festivals that have a more eclectic collection of music—we want to be the only bluegrass band surrounded by a bunch of rock’n’roll and jam bands. We’re talking with the Northwest String Summit people about going out to Oregon and playing this summer.
“We’re still trying to figure it out and working real hard. If you know any booking agency that wants a bluegrass band to take on, tell ‘em about us!”
copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved. Used by Permission.