In January, the Michigan band Fauxgrass won the Fretboard Festival’s Play-In Contest for acoustic music. That secured them a spot in Saturday's Fretboard Festival lineup, alongside bands like The Red Sea Pedestrians, The Corn Fed Girls, and artists like Megan Dooley.
As the name implies, Fauxgrass doesn’t really see itself as a traditional bluegrass band. Mandolin player Jason Wheeler says the band may play some old-fashioned tunes - but they also improvise a lot and change up those old tunes to make them their own.
“We’re not as a band necessarily concerned about preserving tradition with music or, for instance, playing a Bill Monroe tune exactly as it was played - like the traditions would expect. So that’s kind of our niche within that bluegrass world. And from the way we look at it is - we love the music, we love to play the music, we love to share the music and the history of the tunes and all that kind of stuff. But we are way more interested in pushing the boundaries of what these tunes can do for us, you know what we can learn within them.”
Take the song “Ready for the Times to Get Better,” for example. Wheeler says the song has been performed by everybody from Doc Watson to Crystal Gale.
“So we really like taking tunes like that that have either already been kind of played around in in different genres, if that make sense. And what we’ll do with a tune like that, for example, we’ll basically scrap everything except for the lyrics and the core of the progression. And then we start to kind of look and see is there ways to substitute the chord progression - you know kind of music geek language. But also just the approach, we play it with a certain drive that’s reminiscent of what we want to see the Fauxgrass sound like in say 10, 15 years.”
Wheeler says they want Fauxgrass to have that "drive." So they pick up the tempos a bit.
Right now Fauxgrass is looking to the future - developing their sound and working on a new album. But Wheeler says just two years ago, they weren’t sure if the band would stay together. Upright bassist and vocalist Tim McKay got into a snowblower accident and partially severed three fingers on his right hand. That put the band on a two month hiatus.
“There was a lot of folks, including doctors and stuff that didn’t think he was going to be able to play again - and he bounced back remarkably quick. He had a ton of surgeries that he had to go through, you know reattaching things, fixing tendons, skin grafts and all sorts of stuff. He had basically anything that you have done to your hand at that point, he’s had done.”
Wheeler says it was a make-or-break moment for the band, but what looked like the end actually brought the band closer - mentally and physically. At the time, McKay and guitarist Adam Balcer lived near Traverse City. After McKay’s accident, they moved closer to Wheeler and fiddler Jeffery Niemeier near Grand Rapids.
“You know everything happens for a reason kind of thing in my world. And one thing that seems tragic in a moment, within a few months’ time, ends up leading to the whole band being able to relocate into the Rockford/Grand Rapids area. And it gave us more time as a band, it was less stress on the road - because we were even rehearsing in storage sheds in Cadillac to meet in the middle."
Now Wheeler says the band is busy recording its new album at La Luna studios in Kalamazoo. Wheeler says the band has been working on the album for a year and a half.
“A lot of stuff is written from the perspective of somebody that’s going through all of these different archetypal shifts within themselves, different perspectives - everything from family to, you know, the traditional things that you would see in bluegrass that we do still really enjoy. Things like the love lost, the train songs, the tunes that kind of paint a picture of a rambler so to speak, for lack of a better term."
Wheeler says the band had so many experiences touring - the people they've met and the stories they've heard. He says Fauxgrass wanted that to be a part of this new album.
"So this album is going to kind of be a representation of the journey we’ve been on as a band for the last couple of years in particular and some of those shifts, some of those difficulties - like someone getting a couple of fingers chopped off.”
Fauxgrass will play at the Kalamazoo Fretboard Festival tomorrow at 11 a.m. They’re one of two bands to win this year’s Fretboard Play-In contest. The other is electronic musician Brotha James from Elk Rapids.