Everyone's a winner

MerryGold takes the prize with its eclectic Americana sound

Next up: <i>The Voice</i>?

Next up: The Voice?

photo courtesy of merrygold

Catch MerryGold at 7 p.m., Saturday, August 8, at the Sacramento Bike Kitchen, 1915 I Street. The show is free. Learn more at www.reverbnation.com/merrygoldband.

Alex Stephens, the mandolin-guitar playing, co-lead singer of Placerville Americana six piece MerryGold, doesn’t really like to plug his band.

“We’re really bad at self promotion. At this point, it has to be fun to keep doing it,” he says.

Still, he does like to enter contests—and he’s been successful with them. Since the band’s inception five years ago—it started as a duo with guitarist-vocalist Jillian Secor— it’s won two online contests, including a monthlong tour of Germany courtesy of Reverbnation. There was also the time they won the chance to record and film some music at Bob Weir’s home studio, TRI Studios.

The contest obsession doesn’t even end with the band. Secor in particular seeks them out. She made it as far as Hollywood Week on American Idol in 2011, and managed to get on Family Feud in 2013.

Her biggest win, however, was local.

“I’m the beer-chugger champion of Placerville for three years,” she says with a laugh. “I like challenging myself in those ways.”

The Race to TRI entry netted the band a couple of professionally recorded, multicamera live performances of its songs. Those in turn generated Internet traffic as well as a connection to Weir’s studio: The engineer ended up giving them a good rate for finishing the band’s latest EP, 2014’s Hangtown.

The band originated in 2009 with Stephens and Secor playing under the name Trout and Parrot, performing at a wine bar in Placerville with a more country-folk sound.

By 2011, they decided to expand the band and start playing bigger clubs and festivals, with a focus on originals. That was no easy endeavor.

Fortunately, a band found them, as accordion player Steve Schultz approached them at one of those wine bar gigs, and offered to sit in. Once in, he brought Paul Siese and Perry Stauffer with him and the band evolved into MerryGold.

This helped the band develop a more eclectic sound. Hangtown represents a big step forward as it captures the group’s cross between folk, bluegrass, western swing and the styling of alt-country singer-songwriters like Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss. Throughout, MerryGold keeps one foot in the old-timey whiskey bar country aesthetic, but executes with modern lush harmonies and eclectic chord progressions, carrying only a hint of twang.

Related trivia: Secor is related to the king of country swing, Bob Wills, but she grew up in a strict Mormon household, unaware of her great grandmother’s cousin’s music. Rather, she mostly sang church hymns until college, where she discovered Americana and felt an instant connection to the dark storytelling of artists such as Gillian Welch. In turn, it was Secor’s song “Sweet Lily,” a macabre murder ballad, that won the band that Race to TRI Studios contest.

Meanwhile, Stephens grew up listening to ’60s and ’70s rock like the Doors, Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. Later, he moved on to punk, finding a connection to that genre’s rebellious spirit.

It all makes for an offbeat, albeit passionate take on Americana.

Now, if they could just a little better with that self-promotion thing.

Don’t count on it, Secor says.

“I like to compare bands to dining establishments,” she says. “I feel like MerryGold is a creepy bed-and-breakfast in Wyoming that’s only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and we’re always on vacation, so no one can eat there.”