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Monday, 23 September 2013 09:30

'The community doesn't always know what to think of us' A pre-Folk & Roots Festival interview with Nolan Lawrence of the HillBenders

'The community doesn't always know what to think of us' A pre-Folk & Roots Festival interview with Nolan Lawrence of the HillBenders
Written by Brian Benton

With members from all over the United States, raised on record collections of all different genres, it is no wonder that the bluegrass music of the HillBenders bridges a wide variety of styles.

Rock, jazz and blues runs through their music, but also a great attention paid to respecting the history and roots of bluegrass. As important as exploring different ways to progress their bluegrass music may be to the HillBenders, great instrumentation and making music with heart always comes first.

The HillBenders are currently in the middle of their Half Moon Harvest Tour, which makes a stop in St. Louis on September 27 for the Folk & Roots Festival, presented by KDHX and the Folk School. Nolan Lawrence, who plays mandolin in the band, took a few minutes out of a day off from shows to chat about the tour, plans for a new album, and the Hillbender's place in the world of bluegrass music.

Brian Benton: So you're finishing up a short break from shows it looks like. Did you get to head home for a few days?

Nolan Lawrence: Yes, yes. Home right now before heading up to Iowa and Illinois early in the morning. Home is Springfield, Missouri for all of the HillBenders. Our banjo player is originally from Huntington Beach, California, and I'm originally from Texas, but all the rest of the guys are originally from the area and we've decided to base ourselves out of here.

And you got to play a pair of hometown shows earlier this month if I'm remembering right from looking at your tour calendar?

We did. We just had a couple really good shows in Springfield two weekends ago. Hometown shows are always special because you have a familiar crowd, and we see lots and lots of friends and fans that have been following us at home since our beginnings. And we were actually lucky because both of these events here were big, sponsored events. One was sponsored by the university and one was sponsored by a local brewery, so both were city-wide, public events. We had huge crowds at both of them and an amazing response and all kinds of fun.

And bluegrass as a whole really seems to be a pretty tight-knit community, where you're playing a lot of festivals or shows where you might be seeing some of the same people either in the crowd or on the same festival line up as you. Is that something you've experienced?

It is a very tight-knit community, and we kind of sit on the edge of it sometimes because we don't always play your mama's bluegrass, and we kind of push the boundaries a little. The community doesn't always know what to think of us, but more often than not we find tons of support in the bluegrass world. But on the festival scene, you definitely see some of the same people and friends and connections out there, and it is kind of like one big bluegrass family. You start developing friendships with some of the other artists and performers out there because you see them at so many of the different festivals, and you start to feel like family with them.

So you have shows until November, but what are the plans for after the tour is finished?

We've got a break planned, a little bit of time over the winter for the holidays. But our plans are to work on our new record after that. We don't have a name for it yet, but it's in the first stages of preparation. We've got several songs written and ready for recording and we're going to spend some of our downtime this winter keeping that moving along, getting some more writing done and getting those songs ready for recording so that hopefully come late spring or early summer we'll be able to release something.

Do you think that will be pretty similar in sound to "Can You Hear Me" with some more traditional bluegrass, some tracks that go a bit more away from that?

I think that there will definitely be some similarities just because we can't help but sound like who we are and do what we do, although I think we're probably going to bring a little bit more of an exploratory edge to it. We already push our boundaries as far as the bluegrass genre is considered, and I think that we're going to continue to push those boundaries and explore what directions we can take our music in. We all love bluegrass, but we're learning more and more that there are so many other avenues that we can explore, and so many other songs that we can incorporate into who we are and what we do.

On that subject of exploring the ways you can take bluegrass, the band's website says you're "making bluegrass hip again one day at a time." What does that mean to you guys? And, I don't know, does bluegrass really need to be hip?

Well, I am pretty involved in "bluegrass politics" so to speak, and there's a common feeling out there that bluegrass is very misunderstood. So many people see bluegrass and think of hillbillies or hicks or whatever, and there's almost a stigma surrounding it, and that's part of what we're looking to remove or to break. It doesn't have to be just that, and the soul of bluegrass is not entrenched in anything but great instrumentation and music that comes from the heart and I think honesty in many ways. So, making bluegrass hip again, I think it does need a little bit of help. And there are lots of groups out there who are pushing to make bluegrass hip again or into a new fold if you will, and we're hoping to be one of those groups that's redefining the genre for today's music lovers.

When you were growing up and first learning about music, was bluegrass what you were listening to or did it come later in your life?

No, and every guy in the band kind of came into it differently. I didn't start listening to bluegrass or really even know what bluegrass was until seven or eight years ago. When I first learned about it is also when I first learned about the mandolin and first picked that up. But I fell in love quickly. But not everybody in the group shares that same story.

One of the guys in particular, Chad Graves, was playing bluegrass from when he was just a tiny little grasshopper, a tiny little kid, and has been his whole life. We widely varied as far as what we grew up listening to and what kind of music we grew up on. Coming from Texas, I listened to a lot singer-songwriters and a lot of country and a lot of Americana kinds of stuff. And my dad had a huge record collection so I also listened to a lot of classic rock and blues and jazz, and I was even listening to classical music and choral music, really all kinds of stuff. There's a very wide variation of backgrounds.

I guess that's why you can hear so many of those different genres in the Hillbender's music and why you do definitely play some traditional bluegrass, but also steer away from it a bit.


And you also do some bluegrass covers of songs that aren't thought of as bluegrass songs, which I really like. I've noticed that's actually something I'm seeing a lot of. Bluegrass groups playing rock songs, or country songs and putting their own spin on them.

We have done some of that, and I think there's even some differences there. There are traditional bluegrass groups who do very traditional covers of rock songs or country songs, but it still ends up often sounding very much like traditional bluegrass. We kind of take it a slightly different direction since we're not really a straight up, traditional bluegrass band.

So when we do cover a rock tune, for example we do a tune by MGMT called "Kids" pretty regularly now, it's pretty far from what anyone would call traditional bluegrass. The instrumentation is obviously there and the approach is there, but the spin, the feeling and the energy that we put behind it is more than just bluegrass. It's mixed with some of the soul of rock, and a little bit of blues and a little bit of '80s hair-metal even maybe. We try to mix things up and we to keep things interesting.

Any new covers or new original songs planned for your show in St. Louis?

We do have some new stuff. We just brought three more new songs to the table this week, and it's going to be tight to see if we can get them ready, but I'd imagine we'll have at least one of those brand new songs ready. And since the last time we played in St. Louis, we've probably added six or eight new songs that we'll be debuting in St. Louis for the first time at this show. Any Hillbenders fan should definitely have something to look forward to.

The HillBenders perform at the Sheldon Ballroom as part of the St. Louis Folk & Roots Festival, presented by KDHX and the Folk School, on Friday, September 27.

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