If there is an effort by the IBMA to “expand the tent” with the inclusion of more non-traditional bands, it was fully evident in the Tuesday night showcase lineup. The festivities began with Bearfoot, a name befitting a band whose core members migrated to Nashville from Alaska. A year or so after arriving in Music City, fiddler Angela Oudean and mandolin/fiddle player Jason Norris found themselves in the midst of a band restructure. They called upon Nora Jane Struthers to assume duties as lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist. Nora brought along P.J. George, the bassist from her former band, and the quartet added another Alaskan, Todd Grede, for lead guitar and vocal tasks.
The energy filled ensemble is clearly talented, and the performance was, for the most part, professional and polished. Nora Jane showcased her songwriting skills by performing Eyes Cast Down, as tune she co-wrote with the venerable Claire Lynch. The a cappella, Billy, took the crowd in a new direction with an old, African-American Spiritual sound. Long Hard Road was a raucous number reminiscent of The Steeldrivers.
The band members are undeniably talented, as they aptly demonstrated through the entire set.
Their raucous performance will not do a thing, however, to quell the current controversy over the definition of “bluegrass.” In truth, I found it difficult to find the tether holding the band to its bluegrass roots. However, lead vocalist Nora Jane Struthers makes no apologies for the band’s style. She explains that members of the band cut their teeth on bluegrass, pointing out that she sang Louvin Brothers hits with her father as a child and that Todd Grede is a “huge Jimmy Martin fan.”
According to Stuthers, the group’s newly-released CD features Charlie Cushman on banjo on the cut, Midnight in Montana. And, she’s quick to mention that the title of the release, American Story, accurately depicts the material as “a fusion of folk, country, Cajun, and roots music.” She also defends the band member’s right to express themselves musically without regard to genre labels. Stuthers acknowledges that the band’s style may preclude bookings at some of the more traditional venues. “But,” she points out, “other doors will open that may not be available to the more traditional bands.”
Judging by the talent displayed by Bearfoot at Tuesday’s showcase, their American Story won’t be ending any time soon.