Twisted Pine’s boundary breaking bluegrass

Twisted Pine at the Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots festival – photo by Dale Cahill

Twisted Pine has been on the road now for nine years, having originally joined forces in 2013 when they played primarily bluegrass tunes. Bluegrass was common ground for all of them, and they played at Cantab Lounge in Cambridge Massachusetts for a long-term residency. At some point, they realized that they needed a name for the band. One of them mentioned Twisted Pine, and they all agreed. Now, almost a decade later, they realize that the name perfectly captures their evolution as musicians who are now known for their innovative, creative, and boundary hopping music. 

We first heard the band in 2014 at Thomas Point Bluegrass Festival where they competed in the band contest, which they won, for good reason. Later that same summer they won the band contest at FreshGrass Festival as well. That first year on tour, the bluegrass crowds gave them a ringing endorsement and the band never looked back.

Since those wins, Twisted Pine has evolved into an innovative genre bending band that plays at bluegrass, folk, jazz, and roots music festivals, and at venues across the United States. They have shared the stage with the likes of Chris Thile, Molly Tuttle, Balsam Range, Sam Bush, and Tim O’Brien, as well as with artists well outside of the bluegrass world including Bruno Mars, The Black Keys, The Avett Brothers, and many more. They have also released two albums, Dreams in 2018 and Right Now in 2020.

We recently caught up with them at the Green Mountain Bluegrass and Roots festival in Manchester, Vermont, and talked about their individual musical histories as well as where they see themselves headed in the future.

Currently, the band includes Kathleen Parks (Newburgh, NY) on fiddle and lead vocals; Dan Bui (Houston, TX) on mandolin; Chris Sartori (Concord, MA) on bass; and Anh Phung (Chilliwack, BC) on flute. 

At the age of 5, Parks learned the fiddle using the Suzuki method. At the time, she loved Irish music and was an Irish step dancer. Parks says that, even as a kid, she felt more connected to the Irish fiddle tunes them she did to classical music.  

Dan Bui began his musical career playing piano, but after seeing Sam Bush play, he knew that his musical future would on the mandolin. He was right, and many years later earned a degree from Berklee College of Music with the mandolin as his primary instrument. 

Chris graduated from University of Massachusetts with a jazz degree in 2013, and promptly moved to Boston where he knew he would find a thriving folk/ Americana scene. As one of Boston’s most in-demand bassists, he found himself playing at Cantab with musicians who felt a similar passion for all styles of music. It is there that he met Parks and became a founding member of Twisted Pine.

Anh Phung started playing the flute as a three-year-old. She won flute competitions across Canada but did not want to limit herself to being a soloist. Instead, she used the flute to explore a variety of styles of music, and at the same time started playing other instruments. She never allowed convention to limit her musical passions to one genre.

Phung met the band in 2019 when Twisted Pine reached a crossroads in their journey. Two of their original band members had left to pursue other things and Parks, Bui, and Sartori found themselves a trio looking for another member of the band. They were attending a Folk Alliance Conference when they met Phung and instantly liked her music, and more importantly, her musical personality. She liked theirs as well, so she jumped on board with her flute. 

Since then, the IBMA has had Twisted Pine play at their annual awards gathering for the past three years, in 2020 for the IBMA Bluegrass Live!, in 2021 on the Showcase Stage, in 2022 for the Bluegrass Ramble, and last as the opener on the main stage, followed by Balsam Range. And in 2023 Twisted Pine was nominated for the IBMA Momentum Award. 

There aren’t many bluegrass bands that include a flute player, but since joining the band, Twisted Pine has embraced their exploration of what is musically possible. When asked about Twisted Pine’s genre, Sartori says with some humor, “You could call it, ‘neo-folk indie soul Avant jazz jam grass-icana,’ but that doesn’t quite roll of the tongue.” He went on to explain that the band is rooted in bluegrass, but has expanded their musical community with inspirations from explorers like Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Sierra Hull, and Billy Strings, amongst many others.

Sartori says that those explorers have helped to grow bluegrass into a mighty big tree and, “we’ve got our little pine branch somewhere on that tree.”