California Report: Jeremy Darrow

Jeremy Darrow is a frequent bluegrass blogger, IBMA board member, and bass player for the roots pop band Front Country. Originally from North Carolina, Jeremy now resides in Nashville and though he is not California based, he qualifies as next of kin, given the band’s San Francisco roots. I’m happy and eager to hear his stories.

DB: Hey Jeremy, it was great catching up with you at IBMA this year. How did you come to be a board member and what are your activities?

JD: Hi Dave, it was nice to see you as well. IBMA week is always such a whirlwind, it’s good to touch base with friends, if only briefly. I ran for election to the IBMA board to represent artists, composers, and publishers, and was elected by the membership in 2016. Prior to joining the board, I served as chair of the education committee for the IBMA business conference for three and a half years. I’ve stepped down as chair for 2019 so that I can have time for other things, but I’ll remain on the committee.  

DB: What excites you about the future of IBMA and bluegrass?

JD: The big story of IBMA continues to be Raleigh! Wide Open Bluegrass weekend has become such a signature event, and it’s well on its way to becoming an international one. IBMA, bluegrass, and Raleigh itself all shine really brightly in late September, and it’s only going to get better! There’s nothing like a couple hundred thousand people out on the street listening to bluegrass. If any of your readers haven’t been yet, please come! You won’t be disappointed! On the topic of the music: as an art form, bluegrass has always been played at a high level. That’s a huge part of the appeal, but it’s now broadening its reach, showing up in all kinds of surprising places, and building new audiences everywhere you look. In 2019, Greensky Bluegrass, a band with bluegrass in its name, is going to headline three consecutive nights at Red Rocks Amphitheater. That’s a huge deal! 

DB: As you know, the CBA is very proud of its IBMA presence. What’s it look like from the other side? 

JD: The CBA is at the center of a lot of important things during IBMA – the Kids on Bluegrass program for example. The CBA suite itself is a hub of great music, of course, but it’s also kind of home base for Bluegrass Pride, which has quickly established itself as an important movement at IBMA and beyond. Finding yourself in there for the first time you can feel like a party-crasher, but the sense of fun and openness is immediately apparent. It’s one of my favorite places to hang during IBMA.

DB: What was your path to bluegrass and root music?

JD: I think I more or less came by it honestly. My dad is a guitar player and now also a guitar builder. He introduced me to Doc Watson’s Riding the Midnight Train album, which is a pretty straight-ahead bluegrass record, but with a who’s-who cast of progressive pickers. That sound stayed in my head for a long time – even while I was playing in rock bands in high school and then studying jazz in college. It wasn’t until I had graduated that I actually began to play bluegrass, old-time, and country music in a more serious way. In Philadelphia of all places! 

DB: Tell us about the bands you played in before Front Country?

JD: My first touring band was called the Dixie Bee-Liners. It was a bluegrass band in only the loosest sense; we did some pretty far-far-ranging stuff, and it was a lot of fun. I spent about two years in that band, and then left to spend more time working in Nashville as a freelancer. I recorded, and played on and off the road with a wide variety of folks for a number of years. The next nationally prominent band I played with was called Detour. They’re based out of Michigan, and they’ve recently reinvigorated the band. That group enjoyed a lot of airplay on its last album, and we were nominated for IBMAs’ emerging artist of the year award. 

DB: How did you first meet Front Country?

JD: I was performing with a great Asheville band called Red June at Grey Fox, and I wound up helping teach the bass workshop with Danny Booth and Eric Frey. While Danny and I were catching up, I mentioned that I was ready to move on from Detour and do something more ambitious musically and professionally, since becoming a full-time touring band was not one of Detour’s goals. Danny knew Front Country and knew that the band had aspirations to become a full-time operation, and he made the introduction. We first connected via email and over the phone. I agreed to a five-week tour before I had actually met anyone in the band! The tour went well, and I joined full time in the summer of 2015. 

DB: What was it like joining the band after their initial success?

JD: It was a change of gears, but one I’d been planning to make. It’s a big shift to go from flying to a festival gig every weekend six months out of the year to really doing the kind of year-round touring needed to build a band. It’s very exciting to work with people who also have a “let’s go do this!” attitude. 

DB: Getting thrown in with a bunch of Californians must have been interesting.

JD: There was a little bit of culture shock at first. Communication styles can be very different, but it wasn’t really a big deal.

DB: I find it interesting many of the members of Front Country came from jazz and classical backgrounds. Do you think this is this a trend?

JD: I think it’s indicative of the way things are going. Jazz, classical, and bluegrass are all virtuoso styles, and they all require a lot of facility and a scholarly understanding of the style to play convincingly. Once you’ve developed the tools and vocabulary in one style, it becomes easier to experiment with others, and as a result we’re seeing more and more of that kind of exploration. It’s been accelerated by highly visible players like Chris Thile and Julian Lage, who are able to go back and forth between styles naturally. I’m sure that the exchange between what had once been considered disparate genres will become even more commonplace. 

DB: Tell us about Front Country’s kitchen covers videos. I loved the version of Elvis Costello’s Radio, Radio.

JD: The kitchen covers grew out of a desire to create something fun to share with fans that combined things we like collectively as a band. We’ve got some great home cooks and bakers in Front Country – we all love spending time in the kitchen – so it seemed natural to shoot videos of ourselves playing in friends’ kitchens while we were on tour. Sometimes the covers only get played a few times and sometimes they become regular parts of our live set. 

DB: What new release and tour information can you share?

JD: We’ve been working on material for a new record that will be completed in 2019. Starting in mid-to-late January we’ll be on the west coast for a few weeks, including opening for Railroad Earth at the UC Theatre in Berkeley on February 1st. We tour nearly constantly all over the country, and we’ll visit Australia for the first time this year – we’re all very excited about that. Dates and more information can be found at our website, frontcountryband.com.

DB: What are your thoughts on the California bluegrass scene?

JD: The California scene is so special; it’s great to spend time in contact with it. Lots of places have a scene of some kind, but in California there’s an uncommon awareness of what it’s really all about, and what the community can accomplish. The focus on kids is simply spectacular. It’s no surprise that California produces so many terrific young players. 

DB: You’ve toured a lot. Are there any venues or festivals that stand out?

JD: There are loads of places that stand out for one reason or another. But one of my favorite festivals of all time is the Red Wing Roots Festival near Harrisonburg, Virginia. It’s hosted by The Steel Wheels, and it’s just a perfect weekend in every way. It’s worth the trip from anywhere to be there. There are a lot of rooms that I love, but the Jefferson Theatre in Charlottesville really stands out to me. It’s a great feeling room, and laid out in such a way that you feel connected to everyone in the place.

DB: Your blogs are very interesting and well written, Do you have any plans for other writing activities?

JD:  That’s very kind of you! I deeply enjoy writing, and I wish that I wrote prose more often. I guess I’d better write a few more blogs to see if I can still do it! 

DB: Tell us about your various axes.

JD: My “good” bass was made by Seth Kimmel; it’s what some people call a guitar model because it doesn’t have any corners on the body. Seth named it BigFoot, and it’s a pretty special bass – big-sounding and easy to play. It’s not yet on the road with me; I’m sorting out what it will take to travel with it. The neck comes off, which makes things much easier, but I still need to have a case made for it. On the road I play my trusty Kay, which is a terrific workhorse and hasn’t ever let me down. 

DB: Do you sing or compose? I mean, living in Nashville doesn’t everybody?

JD: I don’t sing in Front Country, but I do sing and I really enjoy doing it. I’m a bit out of practice writing music, I wrote or co-wrote about  one third of the Dixie Bee-Liners’ last record, but I have plans to get back to composing over the winter. 

DB: Where are your favorite music or foodie hangouts in Nashville?

JD: The Station Inn always feels good to visit; that place can really recharge you after a long tour. I try to go as often as I can when the band is off the road. Food-wise, Nashville has so many great options now at all levels. This will probably be disappointing, but my favorite place to eat out is a pizza place near my house. Lockeland Table is my favorite for a nice night out; I can walk there from my house, and there’s a cozy cocktail bar along the way. 

DB: What peer artists excite you?

JD: Rachel Baiman! Rachel writes these wonderful songs that are keenly insightful in a really unassuming way. She manages to be simultaneously challenging and charming, and that’s a serious tightrope to walk. Instrumentally, the Jon Stickley Trio is at the forefront of “acoustic” music; that’s a band that everyone should know about. They’re kinda the bluegrass answer to Medeski Martin & Wood.

DB: How has progressive bluegrass changed since John Hartford and Sam Bush?

JD: Musically, things have generally tended to lean slightly in the direction of more commercial styles like country and rock. I don’t think that’s bad at all, as there are so many really great traditional bands out there keeping the original stuff on display in all its glory. At the same time a band like the Po’ Ramblin’ Boys can take that form and bring a total rock ’n’ roll energy to it, and it’s super-exciting and feels perfectly natural. Maybe less obviously, elements of chamber music have been creeping in steadily since around the time of Edgar Meyers’ Uncommon Ritual album. That’s really inspiring stuff, and it’s very exciting to hear musicians that can play both Scruggs and Bartok convincingly. Also, bluegrass musicians are becoming better and better business people. It’s crucial now for successful independent bands to have business and tech skills. As that side of the formula get stronger, it will benefit every working band out there.

DB: As a father, how do you manage you family life and busy touring schedule?

JD: My wife is a force of nature. While I’m on the road she’s doing everything, and when I’m home I do my best to do the same. There are a lot of FaceTime calls happening between me and the kids when I’m traveling. It’s a challenge that I take very seriously, and I’m always trying to do a better job. 

DB: Is the family musical?

JD: My wife is a classically trained soprano. She sings in a chamber choir in Nashville called Portara, and is a ringer for a local church. She had a Christmas gig with Victor Wooten and Jeff Coffin this week– she’s the real deal! Our two oldest girls play. The youngest is just three, so it’s a little early for her to start. 

DB: Is there anything else you’d like say?

JD: I feel very lucky to have been embraced by the California bluegrass community. I love the spirit of growth and the diversity that it embodies, and I’m grateful that you guys let me hang around once in a while!

DB: Thanks Jeremy. It’s been great chatting and I hope to see you again at IBMA.

JD: Thank you, Dave, it was a pleasure. I hope to see you in January.

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website at www.cbaweb.org.