Now Playing: Cullen Wade and the Waters

Five-piece roots rockers Cullen Wade and the Waters are ostensibly a Nashville-based outfit, but that little detail only hints at the travels and travails that have informed the band’s music. Baton Rouge native Wade received an early musical education from his grandmother, whom he describes as “a cool old blind lady and band leader who played organ in a New Orleans style.” Inspired by his grandmother’s example, Wade eventually spear-headed musical projects of his own, touring the South extensively with folk-rock duo Nickels and Dimes.

Nickels and Dimes proved pivotal in the founding of Wade’s current outfit, though not in a way he might have anticipated. When the duo’s old touring RV broke down on a trek through Tennessee roundabout 2013, Wade’s N&D partner cashed in his chips and took a bus back to Baton Rouge. Undaunted, Wade decided to press on into uncharted territory by to making a go of it in Nashville. With scarcely a second thought, Wade moved to Music City, lived nine months in a campground and began the gradual process of assembling what would become Cullen Wade and the Waters, a plainspoken roots-rock and Americana outfit tinged with hints of folk and characterized most notably by Wade’s warm, pleasantly rasping vocal.

SP: After all the bad luck of losing both your van and your band on the side of a Tennessee highway, why did you choose to tough it out and start over in Nashville?

CW: It just made sense to me, because the music industry is here, and I knew there would be access to lots of good musicians. It’s the center of the wagon wheel. It took a while, more than a year of living in a campground, then looking for the right players. To my way of thinking, I’d rather have someone who has great energy and is supportive, than to have a great player whose head isn’t right.

SP: How did you bridge the gap between the music that was native to Baton Rouge — the music your grandmother played — and the folk-based sound that figures heavily into your sound today?

CW: For whatever reason, I have always had a love for good singer-songwriters. I love a well-written song with acoustic music behind it. John Prine, Paul Simon, Cat Stevens, Jim Croce. When I was in high school, when everyone else was jamming on whatever was popular, I was listening to Simon & Garfunkel. I always loved songwriters who had a story to tell. That was always my thing.

SP: There’s a very direct, expressive quality to your voice. It’s not flashy or histrionic, but it’s exceptionally warm and expressive. Did singing come naturally to you, or did you have to be coaxed?

CW: It was pure, dumb luck, in that in my first group, I was just a guitar player. But we got to the point where we needed a singer to play out, and we weren’t finding one. So I decided that while we’re searching, I’ll sing until we find someone permanent. And then it was a matter of, “Aw, geez, this doesn’t sound half bad. I’ve been singing ever since. I just never had the confidence to step out when I was younger.”

SP: What inspires you to write songs?

CW: My approach to music has always been that I want to write about the human condition, the things that connect all of us on a human level. I like to write about life, love — good or bad — and I like songs that are relatable. Life is my inspiration.

SP: How has the band evolved since you all first got in the same room together?

CW: Well, we’ve tried on a lot of different things. At first we were more country influenced, and then a little more rock. Now it’s come full circle and we’ve gone back to our roots. It took us a few tries to figure out who we are, but I think we’re starting to have that down. We know more about who we are, and what we were meant to play.

When I say we’ve come “full circle,” I mean we’ve gotten comfortable with who we are. We’re not trying to fit into a category; we’re just playing our music. And we’re a little bit country, a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, a little bit Americana. Going all in on any one thing wouldn’t be real for us.

Cullen Wade and the Waters will play Preservation Pub Sunday, July 8 at 9 p.m.

Now Playing: The Milagro Saints

Singer-songwriter S.D. Ineson traveled across the Big Pond from England in 1990 to make his fortune in the U.S. record business, and though he’s seen a host of musical projects and collaborators fall by the wayside in the years since, he’s never looked back. For roughly 20 years, he’s been frontman of Raleigh, N.C.-based folk/blues/roots/Americana outfit the Milagro Saints, and Ineson says the Saints have now settled into a comfortable groove, releasing records on their own Moon Caravan Records imprint and touring as the need arises. Ineson recently shared the story of his continuing journey with Scruffington Post, along with some thoughts about the wellspring of his long-running five-piece project’s creative endeavors

SP: How did the Milagro Saints get started?

SD: It started with just a couple of us in New York City in 1996, and then we moved  to Raleigh in 1998 to get a record deal with Whiskey Town’s label in 1998. It was a pretty good scene in Raleigh at the time, lots of bands doing the kind of things we were doing. We eventually started our own label, and then we were able to release a record every couple of years, and follow that up with a tour up and down the coast.

SP: How would you characterize the band’s sound then as opposed to now?

SD: We were more folk rock then; we had a lighter sound. Then we started adding electric guitars, lap steel and organ, and more roots rock and blues elements became part of what we do. And we became a much bigger band, which influenced the direction as well.

Moving forward, we were heavily influenced by Son Volt and their first record, and by extension Mother Tupelo as well. Classic Bob Dylan and Neil Young were very important to us, as was Ryan Adams and Whiskey Town. I think we were going back to that thing of having a real band in the spirit of like-minded groups from the 1960s and 1970s.

SP: As principal songwriter, how do you handle the chore of writing for a diverse group of musicians, some of whom may have  their own ideas about how the music should sound?

SD: Well, I’m primary songwriter, but they handle the arrangements; it’s something we work out as a group. It takes quite a while sometimes, maybe six months to whip a new song into shape before we work it into the set. Then of course you play live, and continue to rearrange it, and it gets better. That way, when we finally go into the studio, it comes together much better.

It’s best to allow everyone to throw in their piece, to allow the people who play particular instruments to work out those parts. I leave it up to them to come up with something that works. Otherwise, it would become very suffocating for everyone, hurt the band’s creativity.

SP: So how has the band continued to evolve leading into the here and now?

SD: When different people join — and we have had a number of people come and go — you get all kinds of different influences shaping the group’s music. I write the songs, but then we may have a lap steel player in the band who says, ‘Oh, we can do something a little bit different with that song if I add this part here.’

Lately, I’ve been writing in more open tunings, in a more bluesy kind of style. That can get pretty raucous when I bring the songs in to the rest of the band.

SP: Where do you see the band going over the next few years?

SD: Well, I’ve done heavy touring on a more “professional” level, back when I first came to the States. I’ve done all that; I’ve seen the U.S. The other members have also seen the world. We’re happy with what we’re doing now. With our own label, we get to pick and choose what we do and when. We’re not making a huge amount of money. But we’re all a little older. We’d rather pick and choose, then have a chance to enjoy a life in between.

The Milagro Saints will play Preservation Pub Monday, July 9 at 10 p.m.

Now Playing: Conservation Theory

For husband-and-wife duo Eddie and Lynne Martin, co-founders of the Tamassee,  S.C.-based old-time music outfit Conservation Theory, music and activism are inextricably linked, conjoined on both a spiritual and practical level. Taking to their instruments relatively late in life, the Martins named the band in recognition of their ongoing efforts at land preservation, and played their first proper gig at a function for a conservation effort they were spearheading. Eddie Martin recently spoke to Scruffington Post about both the joys and challenges of taking up music well into adulthood, and of the fulfillment inherent in helping effect change through the medium of song.

SP: What was your musical background prior to Conservation Theory?

EM: Well, my wife and I were always steeped in music; we just didn’t happen to play. We were both brought up in very musical homes; all of her kinfolk play music. I remember visiting the Grand Ole Opry when I was a kid. And through my teen years, I picked up on all kinds of influences, from Flatt and Scruggs to Black Oak Arkansas.

SP: How did the two of you finally come to play music yourselves?

EM: When we started dating, we followed John Harper a lot, and he was a fixture at the Museum of Appalachia. So this one year, Earl Scruggs was coming out to play for the first time in forever, and he chose the occasion of the museum’s 2000 homecoming. At the show, the did a giveaway for a banjo. My daughter put in a bid in my name, and that was the one they drew. So we got to go back stage, have the banjo signed, hang out a little bit. Later, on the way home, I said, Lynne, we’ve been gifted this banjo for a reason. And she said, well, if you learn to play that banjo, I’ll learn to play fiddle. And that set us off. It was an epiphany, a blessing beyond measure.

SP: At what point did you decide to start playing out as a band?

EM: For a long time, it was just she and I working on our instruments on opposite ends of the house. Every so often, we’d get together and play. And at some point, we did that and decided it sounded good enough that we might do it in front of other people. There was a landowner meeting for a land conservation project we were working on, and it was kind of an event, with music and food and everything. We got a friend of ours to play guitar and harmonica, and we played a show. And since my wife and I have always had an interest in land conservation, we came up with the name Conservation Theory.

SP: Describe some of the projects you tackle in your conservation efforts.

EM: We’re looking at areas that are threatened by development that are worth saving for historical or environmental reasons. There’s an iconic property in Walhalla, S.C.  that we worked on a few years ago, the scene of an old Civil War-era tunnel. There was a waterfall there, too, and people liked to visit the area. Well, a developer came along and decided it would be a great place for a gated community. We were among the people who took the lead and kept that area from being developed, and an additional 500 acres as well by using a combination of conservation easements and purchases and local government actions. The city of Walhalla owns a big part of the property now, and we got another portion donated to the state.

SP: Is conservation a theme in a lot of the songs you write?

EM: We have a few conservation songs, yeah, but we write about a lot of other things, as well. My wife writes a lot about hope and love. My brother-in-law (guitarist Marty Hopkins Gavin Martin) likes to write about people going through hard times. I just like to write about different experiences I’ve had.

We’re a simple band playing simple songs, and we want to be able to get the emotions we feel out in song, by tickling the edge of those words with the notes and chords that we’ve learned. We feel like we’ve been gifted this path for a reason, so we decided to take an active role in developing that blessing.

Conservation Theory will play Preservation Pub Sunday, July 15 at 9 p.m.


Now Playing: The Dirty Grass Players

Baltimore-based string band the Dirty Grass Players began life inauspiciously, as the product of a besotted weekly jam session involving a rotating gaggle of long-standing Charm City friends. Three years later and TDGP is a fully-realized bluegrass outfit, having authored one fine full-length release in the form of last year’s self-titled effort, and having been recognized in 2016 as the city’s best bluegrass band.

“We started as just a group of friends getting together on Monday evening, drinking beer, grilling food and playing bluegrass,” says guitarist Ben Kolakowski. “It slowly just got more and more serious, and the next thing you know, we’re playing bluegrass festivals.”

They’re an unlikely bunch on the face of it — Kolakowski had played jazz and heavy metal prior to the band’s inception; bassist Josh Ballard played rock ‘n’ roll; Mandolin player Ryan Rogers is a former jazz guitar performance major. “How some of us ended up in a band like this is kind of a mystery, “Kolakowski chortles.

What they all shared, however, was the instrumental chops necessary to handle the genre’s dizzying tempos and complex single-note lines. “It is a very demanding music,” Kolakowski says. “Tony Rice once said that most bluegrass players could handle playing jazz, but not every jazz instrumentalist could handle playing bluegrass. It’s definitely a player’s genre.”

But bluegrass bands with virtuosic principals aren’t difficult to come by, given that a certain level of technical derring-do is prerequisite to the form. One thing that separates the Dirty Grass Players from other fleet-fingered flat-picking collectives is the group’s penchant for perfectly-executed harmonies. Theirs is an especially potent, all-male vocal alchemy, making for a sound that’s sweeter by half than the sum of its parts.

“We spend a lot of time making sure the harmonies sound good, that they’re well-arranged, that everybody is singing the right part,” Kolakowski enthuses. “It’s actually a lot of fun. I wasn’t much of a singer before now. But our banjo player (Alex Berman) has a great ear, and he arranges the vocals. He does a great job of getting the best out of us.”

Like most other musical forms, bluegrass has its factions, subgenres that diverge in different ways from the tropes established by genre godfather Bill Monroe, and the mountain musicians who preceded him — traditional and progressive bluegrass, newgrass, jam grass, neo-traditional and gospel. The Players are aswim somewhere in the middle of it all, being neither slavishly reverent nor unwilling to observe the particulars of tradition when the time and the venue are right.

According to Kolakowski, he and his ‘mates are happy to navigate the easements between subgenres, with the result that the Dirty Grass Players can take the stage — and flourish — in a variety of contexts and clubs. “We try to bridge the gaps in the world of bluegrass; we don’t want to be stranded in one camp,” Kolakowski says.

“It’s cool to be able to play at a traditional bluegrass festival, and then go and play at a jam band festival. We straddle jam grass, bluegrass, and maybe stuff that infringes on jazz a little bit. We like to do things that challenge us, that make us better as musicians and as a band. We’re right where we want to be.”

The Dirty Grass Players will play Preservation Pub Wednesday, June 27 at 10 p.m.

Now Playing: Poor Eliza

Before she was a singer-songwriter and leader of her own band, Poor Eliza frontwoman Jane Park spent years standing in the shadow of other crooners, playing her first instrument — violin — in a handful of other Boston-area bands.

“I was in bands with some good songwriters, and I got inspired by what they were doing,” says Park, who struck out on her own some 10 years ago. “Once I tried it, it felt like a natural step. And it felt good, so I kept doing it.”

Soon thereafter, a friend coaxed her into playing a local open mic. From there, Park tells that she slowly began playing more often under her own name. And in 2009, she came full circle, starting her own project — the outfit that would become Poor Eliza — with a diverse group of musicians hailing from various other Beantown bands.

“As a violinist, I have a lot of classical training, but it had never occurred to me up until that point to write like a songwriter,” Park says of her musical transformation. “I had already been playing guitar for a while when I started writing songs, but I wasn’t very good at it. But I enjoyed it. It was low-pressure for me; I didn’t feel the need to be so technically perfect, which meant I had more fun.

“When I started writing songs, what came out was kind of folk-pop-ish — really simple, four-chord songs. I’ve always appreciated the folk sensibility, a songwriter with an acoustic guitar. And I had to keep it pretty simple, because I wasn’t a good enough guitar player to do anything else.”

Park has come a long way as a guitar player in the years since — she now earns the bulk of her income as a teacher of guitar as well as violin. She’s come a long way as a bandleader as well. Poor Eliza recently authored “Ghost Town,” their second release, an accomplished five-song EP of refined modern folk cross-bred with clear-eyed indie rock.

Park says she likes writing songs about life’s less-heralded moments, moments that may seem unexceptional in the here and now, yet take on a winsome significance in the wisdom of hindsight. Her voice is the perfect vehicle for the subject matter– a sonorous alto that, its crystalline tonal purity notwithstanding, deftly navigates the more complicated impulses that reside at the midpoint of the emotional spectrum, yet is still capable of hitting passionate peaks should the moment arise.

“I think there’s something beautiful and special about the quieter moments in our lives, and the truth is that the majority of most of our lives are uneventful,” she says. “My favorite times in my life have been when nothing was really happening. Maybe it’s because I’m not expecting anything, and any time you’re not expecting anything, you can either come across something unexpectedly great, or you can just appreciate the beauty of the moment, the calm of it. In those moments, I feel like you’re very receptive to whatever life has to offer.”

Park says she’s only now looking to expand Poor Eliza’s sphere of influence, by taking to the road and exploring the territory outside the greater Boston area. Like much of her musical career, it’s been a gradual step, slow in the offing. In the meantime, Park says her songwriting has begun to mature, and that her confidence in the band’s material has begun to keep pace with the assuredness she feels with respect to her stage presence and her guitar chops. “I think the music I wrote when I first started was much simpler,” she says. “It was folk music, whereas now I incorporate more styles — rock, punk, indie.

“Although I still like to do some folky things, I would describe my music as more eclectic now. At the same time, I feel like I’m still searching for something. I’m still searching for a sound I can call my own, my own style.”

Poor Eliza will play Preservation Pub Thursday, June 28 at 10 p.m.