Though the joke has doubtless run thin, Paul Bidanset still takes it all in stride when someone points out the seeming absurdity of his mountain music outfit Brackish Water Jamboree having been founded in the sand and surf of Virginia Beach. “We like to kid that the only exposure a lot of people around here have had to a banjo is through the movie ‘Deliverance,'” Bidanset says, laughing.
Somehow, though, the five-piece string band has succeeded in spite of its square-peg-in-a-round-hole origin, winning a couple of statewide music awards, founding a music festival, and scoring on the iTunes charts with their self-titled debut album. And it all began with Bidanset, whose own love of traditional music was actually late in blooming, lying dormant until his college years.
“I went away to school in the mountains, and that’s when I caught the bug for this music; before that, I used to play in rock bands,” he says. “I got very big into Old Crow Medicine Show. That’s what got me into old-time music, and into playing claw hammer banjo.”
Living in Virginia Beach after college, Bidanset pulled together the first incarnation of BWJ — “It wasn’t too hard to find the other bluegrass enthusiasts around here,” he quips — which played traditional songs and a smattering of originals, mostly traveling to little watering holes in the nearby Appalachian Mountains to play shows.
Then in 2015, the band landed a high-profile appearance with popular Virginia roots music outfit Steel Wheels. Bidanset says the show earned BWJ more notoriety and lit a fire under him and his ‘mates. They began writing more original songs, and stretching their touring base ever further down the East coast. “That was kind of our kicking-off point,” Bidanset says. “That’s where we really started taking the band more seriously.”
That led inevitably to the release of their 2016 debut, “Brackish Water Jamboree.” It’s a record that honors tradition in most respects; Bidanset and his bandmates are all talented instrumentalists, equally adept at evoking heartbreak in a lilting mountain air or gleefully navigating knuckle-busting break-downs. But their vocal performances — whether the case be Brooks singing alone, or with the other members in a group harmony — are imbued with undeniable pop and rock sensibilities, including big-as-life singalong choruses, and melodic hooks that refuse to go away.
It’s a sound not unlike that of, say, Mumford and Sons, if M&S made use of more traditional arrangements, and were a little less flagrant in their quest for crossover acceptance.
“Some of our band members have a pop background,’ Bidanset says. “So we wanted the music to be familiar to fans of traditional music, but still accessible to a modern ear. You could say we were going for a traditional sound with a modern-day delivery.
“Lyrics-wise, we also wanted to avoid the trap a lot of bands fall into, where they think that if they play music like this, they have to sing about banjos and mountains. You can pay homage without coming across as fake. We write about real stuff that people today can relate to, family, daily life, etc.”
Brackish Water Jamboree are currently recording their second record, hopefully for release in the coming months. As the primary songwriter — the rest of the band usually lends shape and definition to the ideas he brings to the rehearsal space — Bidanset says the band’s latest songs have drawn from the likes of folk and trad-country.
“I’ve been listening to a lot of Gram Parsons and Neil Young, and that’s having an effect,” Bidanset says. “So now we’re doing a lot of recording with pedal steel and lap steel, which lends itself to classic country. But there’ll still be plenty of the stuff that people have come to expect from us, plenty of fast, energetic fiddle tunes.”
Brackish Water Jamboree will play Preservation Pub Wednesday, Jan. 3 at 10 p.m.