Something borrowed, something bluegrass
Straight Ahead Bluegrass
The four members of Straight Ahead Bluegrass stand in a close circle in a cramped practice room above Davidson’s Distillery. Joseph Martini tosses up a banjo twang. Beside him, Andrew Barron nimbly plucks the cheery strings of the mandolin. Jim Denoncourt, the quiet cowboy in boots and hat, lets his guitar do the talking in a flurry of measured notes. The low, steady pluck of Luke Hoffman’s upright bass keeps it all moving at a fast clip. Barron, Hoffman and Denoncourt break out in three-part, toe-tapping harmony singing “These Old Blues.”
Straight Ahead describes itself on MySpace.com as “four smart alecks who seem to have an affinity for traditional bluegrass and each other.” That’s an apt description. Despite some having known each other only a few months, the band members joke, needle and laugh almost like brothers or childhood friends.
“There’s just an energy when we all get together,” says Martini. “It just sounded and felt better playing together than it had anywhere else.”
Though raised in different parts of the country, these men did come from the same place, in a sense. Nearly all were born into a background of bluegrass, learning it the old-fashioned way—passed down from generation to generation.
Denoncourt, Hoffman and Barron all grew up with bluegrass-playing fathers. They went their own musical routes as teenagers but eventually came back to their beginnings.
“You get frustrated trying to teach your dad Guns and Roses,” said Barron, explaining how playing bluegrass was a way to spend time with his father.
Hoffman introduced himself to the other band members when he saw them playing bluegrass at a science convention. They all got together to play with Hoffman’s visiting dad, Carl Hoffman, a key figure in Alaska’s bluegrass scene.
“Everything was clicking real well, so we decided to form our own band,” says Hoffman. Barron also joined Hoffman in the outlaw-country band Hellbound Glory.
Bluegrass, once reserved for your grandpa, is finding new life with a younger audience. String bands are drawing college crowds from Missoula to Mississippi, and “newgrass” bands like Old Crow Medicine Show are packing amphitheaters nationwide. Many attribute the resurgence to the massive success of O Brother, Where Art Thou? in 2000, when its Depression-era music struck anew an old American chord.
“People just start to yearn for real music that’s not overproduced,” says Martini. “You get handed crap on a plate from the music industry.”
With bluegrass, there is no hiding behind reverb or sound effects. “It’s just raw, naked music, which I like,” says Barron. “Being naked is good.”
As bluegrass grows wild in different directions, Straight Ahead Bluegrass is serving it up no-frills style. The band is guided in part by the spirit of Bill Monroe, who merged the Appalachian string band sound with the blues in the 1930s to become bluegrass’s founding father.
“I’m not looking to create a new bluegrass,” says Martini. “We approach it with a real reverence for what’s happened before us.”