Getting to Know Bobtown
Wooo! If you haven’t had the pleasure to hear Bobtown yet…you must. They’ve got a sound that is truly unique and unforgettable. Think about settling down to hear some pretty straightforward traditional type music…but then you need to put on your seatbelt because it takes twists and turns that will truly entertain and please your ears, heart, and soul. How can anyone resist a folk band who covers “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” I mean…seriously. Bobtown was selected as one of the Emerging Artists at this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in Hillsdale, New York.
Falcon Ridge is celebrating its 25th anniversary the first weekend in August and the Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed ten minutes).* The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year.
Check out Bobtown here.
Tell us a little bit about all the members of Bobtown. You’ve all got such diverse musical backgrounds!
You know, many bands pride themselves on bringing together the varied musical histories of their members to form a unique sound; we don’t really own the market on that. But we are a decent example of how a blend of different ingredients can make an interesting stew. I started as a rock musician but later did some work with pop and country music. Jen McDearman is a Memphis belle with a past in musical theater. Karen Dahlstrom is a former jazz singer from Boise, Idaho. Alan Lee Backer is a Brooklyn native with a long resume on the NYC country/roots scene. And Fred Stesney was a punk rock kid in Los Angeles. Probably our biggest strength is that we’re not afraid to bring any of these elements to a Bobtown song.
What’s the significance of the band’s name?
One of these answers is mostly true:
a) We are named for Robert Townes, the screenwriter of “Chinatown,” “Shampoo” and “Days of Thunder.”
b) We are named for the breakfast cereal of the same name.
c) Bobtown is what we called the wrong side of the river in Fort Dodge, Iowa. It probably has a Starbucks now.
Your style of music is very eclectic. I hear hints of gospel, bluegrass, pop and even a little Middle Eastern swagger. When the songwriter brings the songs to the group, do you experiment with the instrumentation and rhythms quite a bit before the song gets finalized?
Some songs, yes. We recently did a cover song that was a reward for one of our Kickstarter backers, and that little ditty took several 180-degree turns as we rehearsed it. As far as original compositions, often a songwriter comes in with a strong sense of what they want, right down to a fully fleshed-out demo that features sketches of instruments and harmonies. Other times someone brings just a single, unaccompanied vocal line and we build the song as a group. We do surprisingly well accepting each other’s input. We know what are strengths are and try to arrange towards that end.
The closest comparison I can think of is Ollabelle. Were you influenced at all by their sound? To my ears, you take what they do but ratchet it up a few degrees with more contemporary experimentation.
Any resemblance to the real Ollabelle is purely coincidental, lol. But seriously, John Platt at WFUV made this comparison as well, and while we do have similar elements, Ollabelle was not a major influence on us, as we only came to know them in the last couple of years. It’s probably relevant to note that Bobtown formed as an a cappella group accompanied by one solo, atmospheric instrument. At that point our focus was on holler-type material. Eventually, that format felt too limiting, so we widened our musical gaze and started adding more instruments…sometimes ones we’d never picked up before. That continues to be our standard operating procedure, so ultimately, this project has been a real growing experience both in a technical and musical sense.
I’m totally fascinated that the genesis of Bobtown had to do with the fact that you were inspired to write “field hollers” because of your experience working in the bean fields of Iowa. For the uninitiated, can you give us some background about field hollers?
Field hollers were originated by African-American slaves in the pre-Civil War era and were mostly associated with field workers. In a technical sense, field hollers are mostly vocal and percussive call-and-response pieces, often about mundane subjects that don’t–-at least on the surface–appear to have innate political or social meaning. But they had an extremely important impact–-they allowed slaves to express themselves (via a caller) usually in a loud, boisterous form that was otherwise not allowed, and they also provided a sense of strength in unity (via the responders). To an oppressed people who otherwise didn’t have these emotional outlets, the hollers helped African Americans to persevere through the abysmal conditions of that time and became an important social and musical legacy.
When I was a kid in Iowa I was paid to work on farms detassling corn and beanwalking. While that is a long way from the conditions that slaves endured, it did help me understand the challenges of that work. Once I discovered hollers, they fascinated me, which was the genesis of Bobtown.
How are field hollers different than spirituals?
They do have similar elements. As I understand it, spirituals came after hollers, during the Christian evangelicalism of African Americans. Slaves were discouraged from worshiping and many had been long-removed from the religious practices of their homeland. When African Americans were Christianized, the tradition of hollers became adopted and repurposed to spread the word of God.
What traditional and contemporary musicians do you admire the most?
Each of us could provide a long, long list. Live and on records, we’ve referenced many musicians/groups, from the Andrews Sisters to Blue Oyster Cult–even the soundtrack to Mary Poppins. But, specifically, whom do we admire? Going way back, I’d have to say first and foremost, we admire those nameless, faceless souls who originated the field hollers (a genre that continues to seep into the Bobtown repertoire). I, myself, am also a big fan of Appalachian music. Moving up the timeline, we have a lot of respect for the Carter Family, the Everly Brothers, the Mamas and the Papas, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Band, Emmylou Harris and John Prine. Current artists we admire include Gillian Welch, Crooked Still, Red Molly, Shovels & Rope, Whitehorse, Pearl and the Beard and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. And we haven’t even gotten to the rap artists yet!
Here’s a sample of Bobtown singing "Flood Water Rising.” Special guest Deni Bonet on fiddle:
*The judging panel changes year to year. Many thanks to this year’s panel, Carter Smith, producer of Common Ground Community Concerts in Hastings-on-Hudson NY, Dennis O’Brien, talent buyer for the Newtown Theater in Newtown PA and Kathy Sands-Boehmer, booker for the Me & Thee Coffeehouse in Marblehead MA now in its 43rd year of presenting great acoustic music.