Banjoist adopts a more 'kinetic' musical pose with new trio
Following the 2016 release of Nathan Bowles' solo album, Whole & Cloven, the banjoist knew he wanted to take a different musical approach, so this past winter he recruited Cave drummer Rex McMurry and double bass player Casey Toll (Mount Moriah, Jake Xerxes Fussell) in an effort to shake up his sound for new album Plainly Mistaken (Paradise of Bachelors), released earlier this year.
“I wanted to involve people not just playing on the record, but in helping me develop material collaboratively,” said Bowles, who will be joined by McMurry and Toll in concert at Dirty Dungarees on Thursday, Nov. 15.
Initially, Bowles and Co. started by reworking compositions he'd explored previously on his own, such as the traditional “Elk River Blues,” which appeared on Bowles' album A Bottle, a Buckeye, from 2012, eventually moving on to previously unchartered musical terrain.
“Certain songs just seemed to suggest space either rhythmically or harmonically for those other instruments. So, for instance, there's one song from Whole & Cloven, ‘Blank Range,' and one from [2014 album] Nansemond called ‘Chuckatuck,' that were both rhythmically interesting in a way that I could trust the players to come up with parts that would make those songs sort of fresh again for me,” Bowles said. “Then there are certain pieces that are maybe more improvisational that are starting to grow legs in cool ways, like ‘The Road Reversed,' where we're dialing in the drones and starting to jell more and more. It'll be interesting to see where we are when we get to Columbus.”
As a solo artist, Bowles said he has a tendency to “navel gaze,” crafting intricate, insular instrumentals as gnarled and impenetrable as ancient forests. “I sort of find a space mentally to focus on and then try to go as deep as I can,” he said of his solo work. Having McMurry and Toll at his back forces the musician to take a comparatively aggressive pose, giving the songs a natural, locomotive-like propulsion.
“It's a matter of a generating a certain head of steam,” Bowles said. “There's more of a kinetic energy thing happening with the trio that I don't even really try to access in my solo playing. … It sort of gets people nodding along.”
That's not to say the compositions populating the trio's new album are likely to bump on stereos during campus house parties. Even at his most kinetic, Bowles' compositions maintain a woodsy, mystic vibe — a tone he establishes early on Plainly Mistaken with an album-opening cover of Julie Tippetts' “Now If You Remember.” “Now if you remember/We were talking 'bout God and you,” Bowles sings atop ethereal instrumentation, his vocals falling somewhere between hymn and lullaby.
“I think it was [musician] Jim Elkington that mentioned that Sunset Glow record [by Tippetts] … and ‘Now If You Remember' always struck me as a really bewitching moment on that record,” Bowles said. “Her vocal style is pretty inimitable … so I had never really thought about covering it. Even now I can't really tell what drives me to cover a song beyond thinking that I can maybe shed some new light on it.”