by Rick Moore
NewTown is one of the hottest Bluegrass acts going these days, and their new album, Harlan Road, finds the band sounding better than ever. With three new members, the group’s lineup now includes founders Kati Penn (vocals and fiddle) and her husband, Jr. Williams (vocals and banjo), with Hayes Griffin on guitar and vocals, Travis Anderson on bass and vocals, and Mitchell Cannon on mandolin.
NewTown has been getting their feet wet with some live shows to support their new album, and will be appearing at Bluegrass festivals throughout the summer, including the 50th Annual Bill Monroe Memorial Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival; Rudy Fest (Grayson, KY); Junegrass (Grand Rapids, MI); and the Busy Bird Bluegrass Festival (Berkshire, NY), where they will be the headline act.
All five band members are veterans of the Bluegrass scene and beyond, and are gifted vocalists and instrumentalists. They hail from different states in the South and Midwest, but all share that common ground of wanting to play great music that makes a statement and moves audiences. Journalist Rick Moore caught up with Kati and Jr. at their home in Lexington, Kentucky, where they were winding down from a show the night before.
Your new album, Harlan Road, is a typical Bluegrass album in the sense that the songs are about real life, about the situations and hardships that people face every day, things like breakups and poverty and depression. Was this intentional, or was it just how the album evolved?
KP: It wasn’t on purpose at all. Those just ended up being the songs we chose, songs that we all liked and sounded good for the album when we put them together.
JW: These are great story songs, and we don’t necessarily go out looking for them as much as it is that those are the types of songs that writers just bring to us. Story songs are the best for relating to folks, and to present on stage as well. Because people have either heard of something like that or they’ve lived it themselves. You want to relate to the audience as much as possible, and it seems like, with the story songs we find, the audience can find some sort of relationship to them.
The two of you are music business veterans, and you’ve traveled for a long time. But you’re also relatively new parents. Do you get tired of the road and wish you could be home more, especially now that you have a young child?
KP: The baby has usually gone with us; this will be the first year that maybe she doesn’t as much. I don’t really know for sure since we’re just getting started [with tour season]. But me, no, I don’t get tired of being on the road. For me, it’s one of the more fun parts of what we do.
JW: [Jokingly] I get tired of the people I’m with. That was a semi-joke of course. But you sometimes need your own space when you’re all so close, and sometimes when we get to a festival we’ll go our own directions. I think all of us have traveled enough that we’ve come to know what to expect. Things like, well, we’re probably gonna be driving until 3 a.m., get four or five hours sleep, and have another four or five hour drive. It’s got to be something you love to do for the sake of the music and will put up with. You’re an artist. This is an art form.
Much like a painter or an artist, this is your art, and you want to impart your art to the people and have them enjoy it. It’s worth it when you’re on stage for that 40, 45 minutes and you can see that you’ve made an impact, and that the people get what you’re singing and playing about. That they come to the table and say, “Wow, that was really a great show, I want to buy your CDs because I like the songs.” So although you’re tired and hungry and want to take a shower, the gratification is worth it.
NewTown’s lineup has changed since your last album, Time Machine, was recorded in 2013. Are you pretty happy with the sound and the interplay you have now?
JW: The guys in NewTown now are not only some of the best musicians I’ve ever picked with anywhere, they’re just great folks. We all have the same goals and the same vision, and it’s truly a band partnership. Like we were just talking about, when you’re traveling so many days per year in cramped quarters it’s like a family affair, so it takes special people. They’re just great traveling companions, great singers and musicians, and we work well together. It all seemed to fall into place for us with the three of them.
KP: Absolutely, they are great people. And they’re really good players, well-versed in several types of music.
Harlan Road is NewTown’s third album. Do you think it’s your best one yet?
KP: Definitely. The material is great, and the longer you do this, find other writers and listen to different music you like, you can’t help but get better. This album is a great representation of who we are as individuals and as a band, and of what it is that we want to do musically.
Do either of you have a favorite song from the new album?
KP: I really like [title track] “Harlan Road” a lot, and it’s going to be the first single. I also like “Can’t Let Go,” which Lucinda Williams cut years ago. It’s sort of Rock ‘n’ Roll-ish, kind of Rockabilly, and I think that’s what I like about it.
JW: One of my favorites is probably a song that [former NewTown guitarist] CJ Cain wrote called “Drifter Blues.” It’s more of a bluesy-type tune and is unlike anything else on the record. And I also really like “Hard Times,” which was written by Tyler Childers. It’s about a young man trying to raise a family, working in a coal mine … by the song’s end you can feel the desperation, the extremes that it can drive him to. We’ve done some songs here that aren’t the norm, that have challenged us, and I feel we’re all really growing as musicians, and as artists, because of it.
For more, visit www.thenewtownband.com
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