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Horseshoes, Hand Grenades, and the Necessity of Bluegrass

“There’s more and more concrete getting put up across the country, there’s huge urbanization going on, and it’s harder and harder to get out into the woods,” Adam Greuel says, as he’s standing next to the Wisconsin River, the wind whipping off the water and occasionally muffling the voice of the Horseshoes and Hand Grenades’ guitarist, who’s currently on his lunch break from a part-time job at the Garden Guru, an organic gardening company where he works when off the road.

But being off the road has been a rarity lately: after releasing their fourth studio album, The Ode, in February, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades toured for much of the late winter and early spring, and are now ramping up for a summer festival season that will not only see the group share stages with the likes of Old Crow Medicine Show, Greensky Bluegrass, and Foster the People, but also play Red Rocks for the first time this August, alongside friends and mentors the Infamous Stringdusters, the Yonder Mountain String Band, and the Earls of Leicester.

However, there’s still a few weeks before the quintet piles back into their van, and at the moment, Greuel is happy to be home, working in the dirt around Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and chasing that elusive thing, which has become increasingly difficult to find in the modern world: the outdoors.

While likely an uncommon sentiment to hear from a twenty-seven-year-old, the idea of the outdoors is not a bluegrass trope for Greuel and his bandmates, but rather, an integral part of their identity as both individuals and a group. Born from a way of life, it's helped forge a symbiotic relationship between their music and the natural world, as—at least in part—Horseshoes and Hand Grenades are attempting to create a soundtrack from the environment in which they were raised.

 “We spend a lot of time out on the rivers and hiking in the old growth forests,” Greuel says. “The feeling that rings most true for our band is our affinity for the landscape that we come from. That vibe comes out most clearly in our music, and certainly on this record.”

With songs like “Next River Bend,” “Steer True,” “Foggy Halo,” and “River Time,” the natural world enjoys a pronounced place on The Ode, making for an engaging listening experience, as rural imagery exists alongside numbers like “Millennial Girl.” But while this isn’t a novel concept in bluegrass, it’s a fact of who Horseshoes and Hand Grenades are, reflecting a reality that makes their work authentic: away from his guitar and the road, Greuel says that “working in the dirt keeps you down to earth,” which is not only the case for him, but also bassist Samual Odin, who is spending his few free weeks in the fields of the Village Farmstead, an organic outpost he helped open in Oak Creek earlier this year.

While maybe not the green thumbs that Odin and Greuel are, the rest of the band—harmonica and accordion-player David C. Lynch, fiddlist Collin Mettelka, and banjo-player Russell Pedersen—have an intimate knowledge of the the Badger State’s brush and backwoods, having grown up taking advantage of the adventure available just outside of their doors. In fact, if someone was to scan over a few of their Facebook pages, they might think some of the band members made their living as fly fisherman, not musicians.

That line has always been a bit blurred in the band, dating back to before they were Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, when they were just a few guys with a few things in common, picking on porches at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point.

And then, as it is now, it wasn’t just angling or hiking or camping, and it wasn't just playing old-time music, either: the outdoors and old-time have always been something cathartic, used to balance out their place in “the awfully complicated world” around them.

“With that concrete basin growing, there comes this sense of urgency and need for people to connect back to something simple, like wooden instruments,” Greuel says. “There’s an earthiness to bluegrass and old-time and folk music that appeals as a counter approach to the [modern world.] It’s back to the basics, it’s about getting back to the simple things in life.”

“It’s overwhelming as all get out to go on social media—Facebook and Instagram and all those things we use as tools to help get people to our shows. To some degree, they’re incredibly helpful, but they’re also just overwhelming. There’s so much information coming from all angles that there’s nothing that feels better than sitting down in your favorite spot outside and playing acoustic instruments. It’s just so simple.”

While, certainly, that’s only Greuel’s opinion, a gut feeling forged by his own experiences, his intuition may be correct in explaining the growing appeal of his band and his genre as a whole: according to author Aaron Fox, “country music was born when the country became a nostalgic idea,” citing “Little Log Cabin in the Lane” by Jimmy Rogers and Fiddlin’ John Carson. “The first hit country song,” “Little Log Cabin in the Lane” was “a nostalgic reverie” recorded in 1927—the same year “the United States crossed the threshold from more than 50% agrarian and rural dwellers to more than 50% urban dwellers.” Fox’s assertion, then, is that country music exploded when the idea of the country existed mostly as a memory, something simpler people wanted to hold on to, and while correlation certainly doesn’t imply causation, the same phenomenon may be happening for bluegrass in the digital age.

At least, that’s what Horseshoes and Hand Grenades thinks.

“Honestly is what people are craving in a world that’s so commercialized and managed and perfection-oriented,” Greuel says. “When I turn on the radio, it doesn’t sound like the human experience whatsoever. How many people go through the day without some kind of peculiar element? I think it’s rare that I go twenty-four hours without stubbing my toe or scraping my arm on a tree or having some odd human interaction. Those are things that occur, so when you listen to this perfectly, manufactured music, it almost feels dishonest, at least to my ear.”

In line with that spirit, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades chose honesty as their focus for their new record, and with the help of Trampled by Turtles’ frontman Dave Simonett, The Ode’s producer, the group tried to create “a very live sounding record,” sometimes playing all five parts at once to avoid the mechanical, put-together feeling that “weirded them out” during earlier albums.

“On some of the tunes, we actually did the lead and harmony vocals in the original take, which is pretty rare. But, to us, it contributes to this honest feel,” Greuel says. “This time, we decided to go into the studio and be truly who we are. People like our live sound—the way we play off each other and feel it out as we go—so we wanted to capture that here.”

“We had a very laid back approach. We didn’t want stress each other out, we didn’t want to stress ourselves out, and oddly enough, I think you can hear that. I’m really proud of that aspect, and I think that’s how I’m going to record music for the rest of my life.”

Rather than focusing on individual sections as they did on previous albums, The Ode is an exercise in totality, capturing what it’s like to play music as a unit, and allowing its songs to add up to more than the sum of their parts. Proof of this exists throughout the album—”Steer True” is tonal wall of sound, “AD/BC” is a breakneck instrumental, and “Eat the Cake” is an imperfect, wayward romp—but  listeners need look no further than the album’s title track to see the band at their best. Harnessing their youthful energy and mixing it with intoxicating group singing, the quintet finds musical and spiritual harmony, as they give specific instructions for how to experience all things, including their latest album: “Play the ode, my friend, play it in your head/Like it’s the only song you know,” they sing on the chorus. “Play the ode, my friend, play it in your head/’Til the end of time—end of yours and end of mine.”

Among the album’s more subdued moments, the gently-picked “Next River Bend” and Guy-Clark-esque “Stay Awhile” are standouts, but “Home Again” may be the album’s most finely crafted track, as its verse’s feature an airy restraint, which give way to melodic choruses that boast a newfound maturity for the former college band, as they ask, “Why don’t you get on home? Why don’t you get on home again?”

It’s an apt question not only for the audience, but for the group that sings it: after playing nearly two-hundred dates a year since graduating from UWSP in 2013, it feels pretty good for Horseshoes and Hand Grenades to be home again, something that's become a more concerned focus of late. While they’ve “definitely been road warriors” in the past, currently, they’re “trying to spend a little more time at home with their families, and a little more time outside.”

Because in Horseshoes and Hand Grenades—where the landscape of Wisconsin is never far from their music, and their music is never far from the landscape of Wisconsin—their home is increasingly important, in a world where it’s getting harder and harder to get out in the woods.

One night recently, while enjoying the last bits of his pre-festival-break, Adam Greuel was working at his family’s sugar shack, helping cook down sap into maple syrup. He invited a buddy over, “who knew all those old Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger songs,” and over a couple beers, the two sat around all night, “playing those old union tunes.”

“That just felt so good to me,” he says with a laugh. “Man, we live in an awful complicated world, but it’s nice that you can still sit down, play some old ass folk songs with your buddy, and pretend it’s 1950.”