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New Groove

Published: 2004/03/30
by Chris Gardner

Two High String Band

In the end, it all boils down to uniqueness and authenticity, and the Two High String Band reeks of both.
The acoustic quartet from Texas cuts straight to the heart of acoustic
music, crafting music that breathes, music that resonates, music with a
sense of place. Winding through the woods of the Texas Hill Country, it's
not hard to see why. Billy and Bryn Bright's house is nestled back in the
oaken wilds west of Austin, just a holler from the river. Everyone, from
the Brights to guitarists Geoff Union and Bryan Smith to Sonny the dog,
seems completely at home out here, away from it all, tucked away with the
cedar and the brambles and the three styles of homemade enchiladas (Billy's
a helluva cook) and the John Hartford on vinyl. There is an immediate sense
of comfort and rapport amongst the band members and with the surroundings.
The Two High String Band seems to start here, and the music reflects the
comfort and harmony of the scene.

They play, in guitarist Geoff Union's words, "all the music around bluegrass
without really playing bluegrass. Bluegrass is our point of departure."
The instrumentals are often Dawgish but more frequently bear Billy Bright's
distinctive mark. The covers are telling: Haggard, Dylan, Guy Clark, Neil
Young, John Hartford, Norman Blake.the list goes on. Bryan Smith's voice
rests most comfortably with the country-tinged material, where he and
bassist Bryn Bright strike some of their purest harmonies, as they on the
Haggard waltz "Somewhere Between". Billy's originals, like his tribute to
his birthplace "Alabama" tend toward the half-spoken/ half-sung style.

The band plays with a reverence for tradition, but it's more than that. For
many bluegrass bands, revering tradition means falling lock-step into line,
ironing the sharp-lined suits and trying one's best to look and sound like
Bill Monroe. Two High reveres not the product but the source of acoustic
music. Rather than muck their way through, rendering bluegrass by the book,
they strive for the kind of sharp individuality they find in artists like
John Hartford, Vassar Clements, and Tony Rice. They understand that it is
the spirit rather than the sound of acoustic music that counts, that
individuality beats technical mastery every time (which shouldn't, by the
way, suggest that any of the four are anything less than phenomenal
musicians.)

The band converged from the far sides of the country. As a three-year-old
living in Livermore, CA, Bryn Bright (then Bryn Davies) chose her first
instrument, the piano, at her parent's behest. She chose a second at six,
and played both until age eleven. It was a rigid musical immersion that led
her from piano to flute and to French horn and cello before she settled into
the bass. As a senior in high school, she won the Santa Cruz Jazz Fest Best
Bassist Award and moved on to the Berklee School of Music. There she met Bryan
Smith and Billy Bright.

Bryan grew up immersed in bluegrass and gospel music in Pennsylvania,
playing and singing in church with his mother and grandmother and listening
to his grandfather's fiddle. He plays guitar with the band, but it was
drums that brought him to Berklee. Billy Bright, meanwhile, was on the way
to an El Paso, TX music store with his mother one day to purchase his own
set of drums, but she talked him into the (she thought ) quieter guitar.
The Marshall stacks proved her wrong, as her son rehearsed with his punk
band, Distorted Silence. Of course, Billy plays mandolin into a microphone
now, not power chords into an amp. It's all very backwards. The drummer
plays guitar, the guitarist plays mandolin, and the flautist plays bass. So
it goes.

Billy found bluegrass through the jamband scene. Col. Bruce, Widespread and
the like led him eventually to "Old and In the Way," which opened the door.
He found quickly that, "I like, 'Rock on my belly lyin' on the bottom of a
pool,' but I really like 'Fixin' to Die.'" When he met Bryan, they
began playing bluegrass in their dorm rooms, "just messin' around." Two
years later, Bryn joined in on the informal jam sessions, and the three of
them caught the bluegrass bug. "Our curiosity was more than we could
handle," Billy says. "We couldn't stop ourselves from learning more about
it." They played around Boston in various incarnations and toured a bit
before moving down to Texas as a trio and deciding to make a go of it. They
passed several years in Texas, playing dusty traditional tunes, wry
originals, and Billy's instrumentals.

Soon, Billy and Bryn hooked up with Peter Rowan and toured the country
extensively with him as the Texas Trio. During these years, Billy was
developing his knack for writing seemingly ageless instrumentals. His
instrumentals are in many ways the heart of the band. They bear the stamp
of tradition, but launch into unique spaces. It is uniqueness the band
seems to crave, and uniqueness they most admire in other players. Billy and
Bryn gathered ten of these instrumentals and invited Peter Rowan, Danny
Barnes (of the Bad Livers), Tony Rice, and Vassar Clements to the studio to
bring them to life. The resulting album, simply titled "Billy and Bryn
Bright" presents Billy's music in its fullest and almost perfect light, and
the heights the music reached with additional soloists proved that the Two
High String Band needed another instrumental voice.

Geoff Union grew up in North Carolina, "but not in the cool parts." He has
a slippery sense of time that opens new avenues of exploration. In Billy's
words, "Geoff brings the looseness." With a second lead instrumental voice,
the band could begin to explore the fluid spaces between the chords of
Billy's instrumentals. The band moved further from traditional music and
began stretching their music and sound. Recent instrumentals like "Dang
Howdy" and "Tipped Over" exhibit a technical dexterity and level of mastery
giant steps ahead of the band's previous work, and the quartet now feels
complete.

The Two High String Band is approaching the height of their powers. Yeah,
it sounds like star-struck, cheeseball nonsense, but it's there. It's in
the grins passed from player to player on stage. It's in the seamless
transitions that once had hitches and in the fluid, easeful confidence with
which the band now plays. It's in the original tunes, instrumental and
otherwise, that improve progressively. They are a band catching their
stride, a band recognizing each other in new ways, and a band that knows
quite clearly where it comes from and where it is headed.

The luminaries have all caught on. Vassar, Grisman, Rowan, Barnes – they
all see something in the band that the band now recognizes in itself. Geoff
Union speaks of musicians who play music, "true to them. It's not
contrived; it's real," and the Two High String Band seems to have found it.
Their most recent release, Insofarasmuch, finds the band content,
cohesive, and open. There is an honesty to the album, a simplicity that
honors their predecessors without aping a sound. They don't mimic. They
don't imitate. Rather, they study and absorb the essence of truly great
acoustic music. Traditional acoustic music isn't great because it reminds us
of the old days. It isn't great because it captures a time. It is great
because it is honest, and unpretentious. It is great because it applauds
mastery without losing its sense of whimsy. Insofarasmuch is the work
of a band that knows this intuitively.

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