Join Rocky Mountain Highway for an evening of progressive bluegrass featuring San Francisco’s Front Country, an accomplished quintet set to release the new album Other Love Songs this spring. Lead vocalist Melody Walker was recently named one of “7 Women Who Are Smashing the Bluegass Glass Ceiling” by Paste Magazine.
An acoustic band born in the land of tech innovation, Front Country was never going to be accepted as an authentic American roots band out of the gate. Cutting their teeth in progressive bluegrass jams in San Francisco’s Mission District and rehearsing in the East Bay, they learned to play roots music their own way, with the tools they had on hand. A mandolinist with a degree in composition and classical guitar. A guitarist trained in rock and world music. A bassist equally versed in jazz and bluegrass. A violinist with technique that could seamlessly hop between honky tonk and electropop. A female lead singer with grit and soul that was also a multi-instrumentalist and songwriter. In a wood-paneled country dive bar in the shadow of the San Francisco skyline, Front Country forged a sound hell bent on merging the musical past with the future.
This West Coast outfit was a loose collection of musical misfits until 2012 and 2013 when Front Country gathered around a single microphone at the RockyGrass and Telluride festivals, and won first prize in those prestigious band contests that once launched the careers of the Dixie Chicks, Greensky Bluegrass and the Steep Canyon Rangers. The contest wins bolstered their confidence in their unique mix of original songwriting, vocal harmonies and instrumental virtuosity, steeling their resolve to take a leap of faith and become a full time touring band.
With the release of their debut full-length album Sake of the Sound in 2014, Front Country began the nose-grinding work of making their name as a national touring act. Still based in the San Francisco Bay Area, they would trek the 6,000+ mile circle around the U.S. for months at a time, introducing themselves for the first time to every room that would have them. Thanks to the glow of their contest wins, festivals around the U.S. caught wind and invited them to play for their large audiences, giving Front Country a crucial first break. Old Settlers in Austin, MerleFest in North Carolina, Wintergrass in Seattle, Strawberry in California and Grey Fox in New York, all took a chance on the promising new band and solidified Front Country’s hold on the imagination of progressive-leaning acoustic music fans.
If there was any one song from their debut album that they all agreed they had never heard the likes of before, it would have to be the title track “Sake of the Sound”. A pop song with a rock arrangement, played entirely on acoustic instruments. It was almost as if bluegrass instruments had been unearthed 200 years from now in a time capsule, and were re-purposed to make post-apocalyptic modern pop music. Front Country has been drawn more and more into this peculiar aesthetic, writing and arranging songs that are simultaneously intricate, intense and infectious. They’ve been called “Roots Pop”: the past is discernible with a wink and a nod, and the future is here.
Front Country’s sophomore release Other Love Songs is their Roots Pop opus. A graduation from mere concept to a high-speed rail line traveling at breakneck speed with the listener able to walk to the back of the train and look out at a distant but constant glimmer of the past. While their ultimate goal is musical space exploration, the technology of Front Country’s sound has evolved significantly in their five short years as a band, all while maintaining a tool kit of wooden string band instruments. Like a carpenter building a rocket ship, there is a whimsy to Front Country’s perspective that takes an active, imaginative listener to appreciate. It’s not a sound based on current trends of what any mainstream audience has asked for, it is a new perspective looking to find a new audience. Creating one’s own audience from the ground up is never an easy path, but if successful, several decades later, the reward is worth the risk and the journey is its own reward.
Other Love Songs is Front Country’s first record relying on lead singer Melody Walker’s songwriting, first and foremost. With 8 of the 12 tracks penned by Walker, and the two instrumentals composed by mandolinist Adam Roszkiewicz, it is their most original body of work yet. Round out the intensely creative band arrangement style of guitarist Jacob Groopman, bassist Jeremy Darrow and five-string violinist Leif Karlstrom, and the synergy is electric. The two cover songs on the album are the poignant “Millionaire” by David Olney, and a swampy blues-rock reimagining of the Carter Family’s “Storms are on the Ocean”. All together, the majority of the songs are quite emotional in nature and tend toward relationship themes, sometimes with atwist, hence the title Other Love Songs.
The collection of original Other Love Songs on the album are “If Something Breaks”, “I Don’t Wanna Die Angry”, “Good Side”, “Undone”, “O Heartbreaker” and “Keep Travelin’”. These songs follow the lessons that everyone learns in their own personal evolution toward emotional maturity and vulnerability – in which all of us learn to break down toxic romantic fairy tales and write our own “Other Love Songs” that work for real people in the real world. Love works the best when we can accept ourselves and one another with all of our virtues and our flaws, and start creating our own unique path that works for us. Since music and love are borne of the same ether, it’s no surprise that Front Country’s musical path has taken the form of an “Other Love Song” all along, finding their own harmony that plays to the strengths of each member, and doesn’t worry about fitting into a mold.