“New Freedom Blues,” the sixth album from the Asheville, North Carolina, quintet Town Mountain, has a sense of propulsion that the band’s previous albums haven’t quite had. That’s not to say they don’t know a groove when they hear one; it’s just that, up until this album, they leaned heavily on a traditional bluegrass sound, using the thump of a standup bass and the strum of a mandolin to set the rhythm.
“In bluegrass, the bass is like the kick drum and the mandolin chop is like your snare drum and high-hat [cymbal],” says Town Mountain’s bassist Zach Smith.
On “New Freedom Blues,” though, Town Mountain decided to bring in an actual full-kit drummer, Miles Miller, on almost every track, and that has given the songs a rhythmic push-and-pull that the band hasn’t had before.
Even on the songs where Miller keeps his playing as skeletal as possible, as he does on the bouncing title track and the mournful ballad “Down Low,” his percussion frees the rest of the band to follow all sorts of paths, from folk-rock (“Pamlico”) to pedal-steel-spiked honky-tonk country (“One Drop in the Bottle”).
“As a predominately bluegrassy bass player, I hadn’t played with too many full-kit drummers in my lifetime,” Smith says. “But Miles is the consummate professional. He’s like a metronome you can drink beer with. He’s super easy to play with and work with, and I think the other guys felt the same way. I think if it had been any other drummer, it might be more of an adjustment, but since it was Miles, it worked very well.”
Of course, having drums on your songs is a big no-no in traditional bluegrass, something the band was all too aware of while it was making the album.
“I definitely think it was on everyone’s mind,” Smith says. “We didn’t want to lose those fans, or our bluegrass roots. We wanted to stay true to what we’ve always played and what we grew up playing.”
That’s why “New Freedom Blues” is balanced by sparkling instrumental rave-ups like “Tar Heal” and old-school, gather-around-the-mic tunes like “The Way I’m Made” that are heavy on bubbling banjo and red-hot fiddle.
Regardless of those nods to tradition, however, there’s no doubt that the new album points the band in a more progressive direction, which is what they were looking for this time out.
“It has Town Mountain’s original feel and groove, but there were new things that weren’t as comfortable to try,” Smith says. “This album was about writing good songs and recording them as we wrote them, rather than trying to squeeze them into the small box of bluegrass. We were trying to broaden the horizons and be a little more fearless with this album.”
That could’ve been an uncomfortable process, but Town Mountain, which will play a show at The Spinning Jenny in Greer on Friday, had a couple of advantages: the right recording space and the right producer.
The studio was Echo Mountain in Asheville.
“It’s an amazing space,” Smith says. “They really cater to the musicians and make you feel super at-home. On top of that, it’s in Asheville, so we didn’t have to stay in an Econo-Lodge for six nights while we were recording. We could stay in our own homes, and I think that made a big difference. We would come in in our bedroom slippers.”
The producer was a longtime friend of the band and an accomplished musician in his own right, Caleb Klauder.
“Caleb got off the plane and had five pages of notes for us,” Smith says. “He was very much into the project. We told him we were going in a different direction, and he was like, ‘Heck yeah, let’s do it!’ It was probably the easiest record that I’ve ever been part of making.”
What: Town Mountain w/ Tellico
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30
Where: The Spinning Jenny, 107 Cannon St., Greer
Tickets: $14 advance, $18 door
Info: 864-469-6416, https://www.thespinningjennygreer.com/