Carl Towns Band merges with Barefoot Nellie & Co

The bluegrass music carousel continues to rotate with three members of the Carl Towns Band – Towns himself, Elliot Varner and Brett Martin – joining August and Eric Bruce to form a re-invigorated Barefoot Nellie & Co.

Towns, a singer-songwriter from Rising Fawn, Georgia, but born in Alabama, has been involved in the music industry for over 40 years. The most experienced of the quintet,  his family is steeped in traditional country music and with his parents being active in bluegrass music in the 1960s. 

He became serious about playing an instrument in 1980 as he learned the upright bass, then guitar followed by mandolin, and Towns began playing with his family band, The Towns Family, later known as The Bluegrass Harmoneers, at the age of 14. 

Prior to that he started writing songs as a 10-year-old; his catalog boasts hundreds of songs, now. Several have made their way onto minor charts.  

After a time overseas, in 1998 Towns formed a new band, Cherokee Wind. This band continued on the road until 2004, performing for about five years, up until his mother got sick and could no longer travel. The band released a self-titled CD in 2001.

In 2008 Towns’ urge to play music was revived and the Carl Towns Band was born. He began writing, singing and performing again, and in 2009 under the group name Carl Towns & the Remnant, he released a CD of 10 standard Gospel songs, Songs from my Childhood. Vol. 1

The original version of Barefoot Nellie & Company came about after August and Eric Bruce met 16 years ago, when Eric began taking fiddle lessons from her. 

August, from Kansas City, Missouri, grew up playing in her family’s band, The Bluegrass Brigade, where she honed her skills as a fiddle player and singer. 

Eric is originally from High Point, Georgia, and is a captain in the Chattanooga Fire Department, where he has been a firefighter for over 21 years. 

Eric and August married in 2004. 

In addition to playing the fiddle and singing, August Bruce is an accomplished songwriter. Three of her songs were recorded on Barefoot Nellie & Company’s debut album in 2010; South River, a ghost story and the title song on their album; Cryin’ Fields, which is about the dust bowl; and Forever Friend, a Gospel song that was also selected to be on the Scenic City Sampler music collection CD featuring Chattanooga musicians and songwriters.  

Eric Bruce lists playing on the PBS TV Series Song of the Mountains in Marion, Virginia, and on WDVX Blue Plate Special Radio Show in Knoxville, Tennessee, as two of the highlights of his bluegrass career. He has played on stages throughout the southeast and as far west as Silver Dollar City in Branson, MO.  

He has had the opportunity to open for noted musicians and bands such as Sam Bush, Yarn, and the Farewell Drifters. 

Barefoot Nellie & Company was formed in 2007 and it has performed since then in various configurations. In 2010 they released their debut CD South River

Two years later the group played on the PBS TV series Song of the Mountains

2014 was a particularly good year with bluegrass band contest wins at Uncle Dave Macon Days festival in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and Bluegrass on the Plains festival in Auburn, Alabama, where the band won recording time at the Mountain Fever Studios in Willis, Virginia. The band recorded three songs and then uploaded them to their website for free download. August Bruce comments, “It really helped the band when it (sic) was released”. 

She continues the story … 

“Over the last couple years we would have a show here and there where our mandolin player wouldn’t be able to make it and we would call on Carl Towns to fill in for those shows. Over time we became really good friends with Carl and really fell in love with his musicianship. Eric and I would talk about how much we loved pickin’ with Carl, but Carl had his own band and we didn’t want to change the course he was on.”

However, early in October (2017) the pieces for the merger began to fall into place. Towns was contacted by August and Eric Bruce, after their most recent configuration didn’t work out. It helped that Towns was taking a break from performing and devoting his time to developing new music, sounds, and even the goal of the band as well as recording some new music.

For Towns getting together, “seemed to be somewhat of a modified Charles Dickens novel. The Tale of Two Ditties. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the best of times again!”

Towns suggested Elliott Varner from Fort Payne, Alabama, (guitar and vocals) and Brett Martin from Loachapoka, Alabama, (banjo and vocals) to fill the other positions. 

Varner grew up with music; his mother played the piano in church and his father and uncles had a band playing country music. He went to all their shows while growing up.  When he was nine he began learning to play the guitar. Varner had what he describes as   ..

“…a beat up old 000 size guitar that I had to use a Capo on the first fret because the nut was busted up. My dad showed me three chords and drew out the neck of the guitar on paper and marked where those three chords were; GCD. 

My parents promised me a new guitar for my tenth birthday if I would learn Amazing Grace before February 29th rolled around. On February 28th I received a Yamaha FG 401 guitar as a birthday. I started playing in church and eventually got into bluegrass sometime between 12 and 14. When my dad was 42 he started playing banjo and had to have a rhythm guitar player and it was a split decision that I was rhythm. 

I was into 1990’s country, rock, and even alternative rock for a while. 

I first started playing lead because of an older man who played banjo. I went to my first jam session that I recall at a small cafe in Rosalie. John Blake Peak was playing banjo, I don’t remember who else was there, and Mr. Peak offered me a lead break on every single song that night. I barely could play rhythm and now I’m being offered lead breaks from a man I’ve never met. He almost insisted I play lead. I would do G run then a g scale then walk to C and do something simple and so on. 

He actually got me interested in playing bluegrass lead on the guitar. It was shortly after, that I discovered Tony Rice. I tried to learn every tune and every lick Tony Rice played. Especially the fiddle tunes. 

[Other] influences, would include my dad and uncles, my grandfather, Clyde, Uncle Josh, Varner, Bryan Sutton, Vince Gill, Brent Mason and Johnny Highland. 

A couple years later my dad decided he was good enough on the banjo and started looking for a mandolin player and bass player. Together with a couple other musicians we formed Lookout Mountain Bluegrass and started playing any and every show we possibly could. 

I have played in several different configurations of bluegrass and country bands as well as playing percussion in high school marching and concert band.”

Martin, now 57 years old, started playing the piano at age of five and quickly moved to playing the banjo three years later. His mentor was JD Crowe. …..

“Since the age of 10 I have been involved in the music business singing, writing, recording and playing bluegrass music. 

My CD was played over the theme park speakers at Dollywood, played over the TV at RFD TV as background and feature music on TV shows.

I have several original vocals and instrumentals recorded to my credit, including those on the now defunct Mountain Hollow label. I have also placed 3rd twice in the International banjo contest at Winfield, Kansas.”

Brett gives credit to God for his talent, and his wife Carol for putting up with five fingers.

Towns adds …..

“I have known Brett Martin for over 15 years, we used to play together in Blue River, mostly performing as the house band at Hoofer’s Gospel Barn in LaGrange, Georgia. Elliott and I met through another band and we eventually joined together in my band.”

Varner teamed-up with Towns in 2013, while Martin was in Towns’s band officially for almost two months before he joined Barefoot Nellie & Co. 

Towns says that the new combination has actually …

“…played five or so gigs since our first meeting in October. Some of these gigs were booked as the Carl Towns Band, and others as Barefoot Nellie & Co. Since they were booked before we merged, we performed them as the respective band. Shortly into our new venture, I suggested we go under the Barefoot Nellie & Co banner as a band and so we began booking as Barefoot Nellie & Co thereafter.

In our first couple of gigs, we simply did traditional, aka songs that everyone knew. Those two gigs also allowed us to get to know one another a little better. We recently played the Boxcar Pinion Forever Fall Festival and it is like my friends have found one another and decided to have a band. I knew Eric and August for a while, and I had filled in a couple times with them. I have known Brett Martin for over 15 years, we used to play together in Blue River, mostly performing as the house band at Hoofer’s Gospel Barn in LaGrange, Georgia. Elliot and I met through another band, and we eventually joined together in my band. So all my friends merged together. These two groups of people had never met really but we all came together as if we had known one another all along. That’s the way bluegrass family is.

We are working on our repertoire. Three of us, August, Brett and myself write, and so we are going to be incorporating those until we go mostly original in our sets. So we are developing all of this while trying to fulfil gigs we had booked and are accepting bookings as well. We are integrating the best of both bands into one. Looking at our strong points, our best songs and focusing on those while learning one another’s originals. I think it will merge nicely together as we move forward into the future.”

For all that Barefoot Nellie & Co is doing currently and in the future, visit their website and find their Facebook page and other social media content.

To book Barefoot Nellie & Co. contact August Bruce by Tel: (423) 618-8711 or by email.

The band’s next date is tonight, Thursday, December 14, 2017, at Bluegrass at the Feed Co. Table and Tavern in Chattanooga, Tennessee, 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.  

Good luck to Barefoot Nellie & Co. !!

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.