One band found out that the car rental agency was true to its advertising when it found itself in a bind en route to the inaugural Mountain Song at Sea cruise on February 1. Henhouse Prowlers, one of six bands chosen to participate in the “Battle for the Boat” competition onboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Sky, was traveling in the group’s van after a show near Atlanta the night before when a problem arose. Having driven through the night on its way to the Port of Miami in Florida, from where the cruise was set to sail, the band found itself stranded in a residential neighborhood mid-morning, the van inoperable. There were just a few hours before the ship was scheduled to leave, and the timing of the breakdown could not have been worse. Banjo player and band co-founder Ben Wright recalled what happened next.
“There was a moment of silence where we were all just kind of sitting there in shock,” he says in a phone interview a few days ago. “’This can’t be happening.’ And you’re in the middle of this place where you don’t have any time to think, but you have to think. And Vanessa [Robinson], our manager, was like, ‘Well, I’m going to get on the phone and get a rental car,’ and Jon [Goldfine, bassist] was like, ‘Well, I have AAA,’ so they just both got on the phone. Vanessa found a rental car place two miles from us that had an SUV…she said, ‘Can you guys come and get us?’ And they said, ‘Sure.’ And the tow truck was on its way, and she hung up the phone and so did Jon, and there was kind of this plan coming together.”
With the immediate panic past, the tension of the situation began to dissipate.
“It was funny how it turned from this panic to almost this strange giddiness, at the absurdity of the situation,” Ben remembers. “We started laughing uncontrollably. I didn’t expect that, and it lightened the mood, thankfully. We realized that the tow truck was going to come and take the van, and the rental car was going to pick us up…, so we got to Enterprise and they expedited our check-out, and then we just got going.”
Fortunately, the band made it in time to sail, and they competed Friday night in the Battle for the Boat contest. In a challenging match, Henhouse Prowlers were up against Sanctum Sully, Front Country, The Austin Steamers, Betty and the Boy and The Dustbowl Revival for the title, but in the end, it was the Prowlers that captured the title. The prize for the winner was the opportunity to perform a scheduled set as part of the cruise’s programming, an opportunity Wright took very seriously. After careful preparation and a little quiet celebration with band co-founder Goldfine, the Prowlers took to the stage and presented a strongly appealing set to a full house.
Bluegrass lovers can find much to like about the Henhouse Prowlers. Namely, as with all good bluegrass bands, the members are excellent instrumentalists. Starr Moss, the 26 year-old guitar player, does much to impress, showing himself much more than a rhythm player with able solos to rival those of masters more than double his age. Dan Andree attacks his fiddle with a spark not unlike Nicky Sanders from the Steep Canyon Rangers. Wright’s banjo style comes “straight from Earl and J.D.,” as he describes it, which anchors the band’s sound solidly in traditionalism without being stale. In fact, they are definitely on the blue side of bluegrass, both in the songs they choose to cover and in the originals they present, yet never sink into the maudlin. Instead, their melodies are fresh, as in Andree’s The Track and Goldfine’s Lonesome Road, and the lyrics are sharp, as in Syracuse.
Presentation is important to the Prowlers, too. While some bands, especially younger ones, might choose to perform casually without any costume or particular outfits, Wright feels that one way that they can show reverence for the music they play is through the clothes they wear on stage. In the vein of Steep Canyon Rangers, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and the Del McCoury Band, you will always find Henhouse Prowlers in suits.
“There are a whole lot of reasons to do it,” states Wright. “Bill Monroe was quoted as saying, ‘You have to respect the music,’ and that’s why he made his guys dress up. I like that sentiment, but even the younger kids, the hippies in dreadlocks, they get the sense that we’re taking it seriously and they like it. I don’t see why you shouldn’t present yourself professionally in a situation, and it always works out in our favor that we show up looking good. I love it.”
Back on the Norwegian Sky, Wright and the rest of the band were enjoying themselves.
“It was a wonderful thing. The crowd was really into it, it was a listening crowd,” he says. “I felt like the time slot that they gave us was one of the best of the weekend. It was an engaged audience, and I was thrilled with it.”
One of the great things about being on a cruise like Mountain Song at Sea was that everyone, from bands to guests, was able to relax and enjoy the company of each other in a way that normally simply isn’t possible in any other scenario. For Wright, that meant having the opportunity to spend some quality time getting to know some of his heroes.
“I had some really cool conversations with Woody [Platt] from the Rangers about their early days,” he contemplates. “I felt like he took time to talk to me and hang out, and that’s a thrill. There were these great moments of connection with these guys that I pretty much worship, you know.
“The week before the cruise, we opened for the Travelin’ McCourys in Springfield, Illinois, and they were really nice to us there, and then we found them on the boat and they remembered us, and it was really cool to go from seeing these guys at shows and being inspired by them, to sitting next them and eating dinner and realize they have a certain amount of respect for you, too. I mean, that’s just a powerful thing.”
Now that Mountain Song at Sea is over, Henhouse Prowlers are looking ahead at what possibilities the future holds. Because of their win on the ship, they have already been extended several offers to play festivals this season. They are planning a trip to Europe in the spring. In April, they will release an album produced by Greg Cahill of Special Consensus. By all visible evidence, this is a band on the move – up. It’s exciting, and, Wright admits, sometimes a little hard to fathom.
“Yesterday, we were driving through Lake Tahoe, and Lake Tahoe is just gorgeous,” he says. “We all were like, ‘I can’t believe four days ago we were in the Bahamas, and now we’re in Lake Tahoe.’ It’s just a bizarre life that we’ve chosen for ourselves, and the fact that a certain element of success has come to fruition is just beyond my wildest dreams. Even though I needed to have pretty wild dreams to start doing this in the first place!”