Circus No. 9, a progressive bluegrass band out of East Tennessee is back on the road this summer. We met up with them at the Podunk Bluegrass Festival in Goshen, CT where they played two sets on Friday, and then hung around to host a late-night jam. Lead singer and mandolin player Thomas Cassell also ran a mandolin workshop with Jacob Jolliff, a talented duo to say the least. Their latest configuration includes Vince Ilagan on bass, Ben Garnett on vocals and guitar, Cassell, founding member, on vocals and mandolin with guest player Avery Merritt on fiddle.
Although the band is still young, originating in 2016, they have already established themselves as accomplished and mature musicians, collectively and individually playing alongside a long list of well-respected bluegrass artists including, amongst many, Bryan Sutton, David Grisman, Larry Keel, Billy Strings, Missy Raines, Tony Trischka, Sean Watkins, and Becky Buller
Each musician brings with him a degree in music, Cassell from East Tennessee State University in bluegrass, Iligan from the University of Tennessee in Bass Performance, Garnett from The University of North Texas in jazz studies, and Merritt from Berklee College of Music where he studied with Dr. David Wallace, Matt Glaser, and Darol Anger.
Along with their virtuoso style of play, each band member shares a love and appreciation of bluegrass history, culture, and music and a desire to write and play their own original tunes. Cassell says, “I have this strange belief that the best way to preserve ‘traditional’ bluegrass is to change it and try to make it new. People will then be able to see and appreciate the music’s roots and where you drew the influence from. It’s fun to play the original versions, but when a song has been recorded by hundreds of bands, we want to have our own version.”
Cassell and Garnett have long been composers and songwriters, but neither takes full credit for any one original. They say that their original tunes are a product of the bands’ full collaboration and exploration. That exploration may begin in bluegrass, but the band’s musical influences including folk, jazz, old-time, classical, and rock allow for what Barnett calls a genre-bending ‘in the cracks’ approach to composition.
When we sat in on one of their green room rehearsals at Podunk, the bands’ comfortable, focused, and playful run through much of their upcoming set spoke volumes about their cooperative and creative approach to music. Cassell, Ilagan, and Garnett clearly speak the same musical language. Although new to the band, Merritt has recorded and performed with the band in the past, and his inclusion felt seamless. Merritt, like his bandmates, easily flows back and forth between jammy and traditional, never leaving the listener worried about being left out in space.
Circus No. 9’s first full-length album Modernus, recorded in 2018, includes seven originals plus their own unique take on the traditional tune Joe Hill. The first Circus No. 9 tune that captured our attention when we heard it on Bluegrass Junction was On the Shelf. Although it was Cassell’s distinctly unique voice that first made me ask Dale, “What band is this?” we quickly appreciated their innovative approach to both their songwriting and their ability to smoothly blend the old with the new.
Circus No. 9 plans to keep moving ahead with festivals, house concerts, and working together on new material. To this end, Cassell has just moved to Nashvill to be closer to his band mates. When not composing new music, working on their next recording, or touring, Circus No. 9 band members will each pursue their own individual projects. If you can’t catch the band on stage this fall you might be able to see Ben Garnett who tours with Missy Raines, or hear Cassell’s first studio release since his 2018 Voyager, a single co-written with Becky Buller entitled Traveling Shoes. Cassell also released a handful of unedited songs in 2020 that he and three friends recorded on old analog gear. He says that the result is an unadulterated glimpse into what happens when four friends get together and make music.