Home Arts & Entertainment MERLEFEST: Discovering contemporary relevance in bluegrass

MERLEFEST: Discovering contemporary relevance in bluegrass

By David Rogers. April 26, 2019. WILKESBORO, NC — Many of the music lovers attending the second day (Friday) of this weekend’s 2019 edition of Merlefest – especially younger generations and the young-at-heart embracing the bluegrass genre’s modern evolution – were undoubtedly looking forward to Mile Twelve’s 45-minute set on the Creekside Stage beginning at 1:30 pm.

COVER IMAGE: Mile Twelve on the Creekside Stage at 2019 Merlefest. All photographic images by Bill Barbour, edited by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News

Say “New England” today and most of us will immediately conjure up images of the ageless Tom Brady throwing Patriot touchdown passes to Julian Edelman or Rob Gronkowski. Boston-based bluegrass band Mile Twelve may very well change that.

Say “bluegrass” and a good many in the world will think of high-pitched, high-energy pickin’ and fiddlin’, or lonesome, soulful songs about love, home and family in the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. Boston-based bluegrass band Mile Twelve may very well change all of that.

Musicians tackling tough topics is not new.

Musicians tackling tough topics is not new. Bob Dylan’s classic anthems reflecting the civil rights and anti-war movements in the 60s and 70s come immediately to mind. The 1966 Broadway musical Cabaret and its highly acclaimed 1972 film adaptation , Cabaret, explored Nazism, homophobia, sexual ambiguity, and corruption – a pretty broad “minefield” even five decades later.

But who would ever have thought that bluegrass musicians would tackle such thought-provoking subjects as post-traumatic stress syndrome, climate change, the stigma that comes with criminal conviction, and Jewish refugees fleeing war-torn Europe?

Apparently, Boston’s Mile Twelve is thinking outside the proverbial box, because those are among the topics explored on their new album, City on a Hill, released in March. The band is not only part of a youth movement in bluegrass, but bringing a whole new generation seeking relevance to the genre. According to the band members, it is all about storytelling, and they embrace those challenging, modern-day topics with grace and skill in their music.

Grassroots Beginnings

Back in the 1930s and 1940s, Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys of Kentucky carved out a synthesis of English, Irish and Scottish traditions with string band, blues, sacred, and country music, that evolved as a new, uniquely American genre of music: bluegrass. While many in the genre do touch on love, home and family, as well as simple Southern country lifestyle topics (think Stanley Brothers and their “Rabbit in a Log”), religion and gospel music also played a key role in the development of the bluegrass sound.

Bluegrass bands like Mile Twelve promise to take the genre to a different, more relevant level.

But bluegrass ensembles like Mile Twelve promise to take the genre to a different, more relevant level. Five highly accomplished musicians from the Berklee College of Music (Boston), Boston College, New Zealand School of Music, and Bryan College (Dayton, TN), Mile Twelve brings much of the traditional bluegrass sound, but now a more contemporary storytelling — and that is what the Creekside Stage audience discovered on Friday afternoon.

“We’re all from different places,” mandolin specialist David Benedict explained to Blowing Rock News in an interview. “We all have different stories in how we got into the genre. At different points in time, we each found our way to Boston one way or another. A couple of our members studied at Berklee because they have a really great program in Americana music, including some really top artists in bluegrass. One  of our members grew up in Milton, near Boston, so he was already there. And BB (Bowness, banjo) moved to Boston from New Zealand about eight years ago because she heard about the great stuff going on in bluegrass at Berklee and around the area, just to start making connections.

“I joined the band a little bit later,” Benedict admitted. “They were looking for a mandolin player to flesh out the lineup. We had all been friends for a long time. The bluegrass scene is relatively small. You end up seeing pretty much the same folks at all of these festivals. Especially for young people getting to know other players who are serious about the music and about the same age as you with common goals that you share, it’s a special thing. We stayed in close contact for a couple of years before I joined the band. I was living in Nashville at the time and playing with Missy Raines’ band. Mile Twelve asked me to join full time a couple of years ago.”

John Mayer went there, as did Quincy Jones.

Benedict added that while they all come from different backgrounds, they are all committed to honing their craft in songwriting, performing and musicianship. He noted that Berklee College of Music was a natural focal point for bringing them together because of the school’s Americana track of study, but explained that the school is better known for jazz, as well as other popular forms, with some high profile alumni.

“John Mayer went there, as did Quincy Jones,” Benedict recalled. “Lots of different styles, but the REACH program for studying bluegrass is one of the first of its kind. It includes Celtic music, old time music and other styles in addition to bluegrass.”

When Blowing Rock News asked Benedict whether his group had run across the High Country’s child prodigy Kitty Amaral (now studying at Appalachian State’s Hayes School of Music and 17), the mandolinist immediately brightened and said, “Of course! She just won a IBMA Momentum Award for “Instrumentalist of the Year” and a couple of us won that same award this past year along with Kitty. We’ve only crossed paths a little bit, but we know their band and enjoy their music.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Blowing Rock News featured Kitty Amaral last year in two stories, one an interview and the other an evaluation of her senior recital, performed at St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church in Blowing Rock. For “Blowing Rock News ONE on ONE with Kitty Amaral, 16, music prodigy or just a remarkable young woman?” CLICK HERE. For “No prom for that dress, but WOW what a senior recital!” CLICK HERE.

At the Core, Storytelling

Mile Twelve is purposefully breaking the mold of traditional bluegrass music in their storytelling. They research their topics like good novel writers.

“One of our main missions as a band,” explained Benedict, “is to write music that is relevant and that we feel strongly about topic-wise, as well as musically. Our new album (City on a Hill) is an (conscious) effort, thematically. The title is actually a Biblical reference that was used to describe Boston back in colonial days and later on to describe America as a whole. The whole record has songs about people in trouble, people struggling with things, and people in need. It is an unintentional reference to some of the current state of affairs, not in a malicious way and definitely not to politicize things, but as young people seeing problems in the world today and telling stories about them to bring them more into the public eye…We know people who are personally affected by these issues. It’s a tradition of songwriters to put themselves in the shoes of others, in an effective way.”

It’s about storytelling. They research their topics as thoroughly as good novel writers.

It’s Fun Straying into Uncharted Territory

Beyond their thoughtfully crafted original music, Mile Twelve plays traditional bluegrass covers with great dexterity, but occasionally strays into uncharted waters that are not intuitively fertile ground, musically, for bluegrass.  And yet, they pull off such covers as Elton John’s “Rocket Man”, Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years,” Alan Jackson’s “Ace of Hearts,” and the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man” in ways that makes bluegrass proud and makes the songs their own.

“We’ve sung ‘Rocket Man’ for a couple of years now,” Benedict recalled. “We recently toured the United Kingdom and sang it for some British audiences. That was a little bit scary, but it came off pretty fun. We played in Elton John’s hometown, but he couldn’t make the show.

“We’ll forgive him,” Benedict deadpanned with a chuckle.

Benedict noted that bluegrass musicians playing popular songs from other genres is not new.

“There is a lot of room for interpretation,” he explained, “when you are approaching a different genre with these instruments. You can really get outside the box and think creatively about how to accommodate all the sounds you hear in electric music. (For Rocket man), we wanted to cover the whole song as accurately as we could…There are different ways to cover popular music in bluegrass.”

The band appears to be a hot commodity and much in demand these days. After their one 45-minute set in Merlefest, Mile Twelve was off to other gigs in the likes of Bloomingdale, GA; Louisville, KY; Northfield, MI; Fish Creek, WI; Chicago, IL; Cedar Rapids, IA; Wasau, WI; and Gettysburg, PA — all within about the next two weeks.

And their calendar is full all through the summer, across the U.S, and to Canada, France and Belgium. With their deft instrumentals and poignant storytelling, it is easy to call Mile Twelve one of the bright new faces of bluegrass: respectful of the art form, but relevant to generations just now coming of age.

For samples of Mile Twelve’s work, CLICK HERE for some links to YouTube videos.

To buy their new album, City on a Hill:


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