In 2012, the Lonely Heartstring Band emerged out of the American Roots Program at Berklee College of Music when the college received a request for a bluegrass band that played Beatles covers to play for a wedding reception. Put together for that gig, the band began discovering itself and to evolve as the Lonely Heartstring Band, winning the band contest at the Thomas Point Beach Bluegrass Festival in Maine. LHB has developed as a three-legged musical stool based on traditional bluegrass, inventive covers of contemporary music from other genres, and their own writing, with a "majority of the originals being co-written." Combining instrumental virtuosity with fine singing and fresh, inventive song stylings, the band has captivated audiences and critics in all parts of the country.
Composed of five musicians with origins from Vancouver, British Columbia, and Los Angeles on the West Coast to the Boston area in New England, the members come from diverse musical backgrounds, too. Twin brothers Charles and George Clements had early classical music training. George attended Syracuse University, majoring in jazz saxaphone and music business, arriving at Berklee when he was 25. Charles attended New England Conservatory of Music as a classical bass player, but had also played electric bass in rock and roots bands. Patrick M'Gonigle, from Vancouver, was introduced early to Suzuki violin, but found himself attracted to more contemporary music, though he notes that Suzuki violin provided good skills to strengthen his ear learning and facilitate improvisation. Matt Witler comes from Los Angeles, where he played fiddle and mandolin while attending numerous country, folk, and bluegrass events as a child. He claims to have seen Willie Nelson over 20 times. Gabe Hirshfeld fell in love with the banjo at age 15, when he heard the Car Talk theme, “Dawggy Mountain Breakdown," and fell in love with the sound of Earl Scruggs' banjo, saying to himself, “I could do that ... .”
“We all live in Boston now," Witler says. "We were teenagers in the late '90s and early 2000s. We listen to a huge range of music from all different eras and places. We all studied music in school. It would feel dishonest to me to play and arrange music in a way that ignored all of that.” Below, Marty Stuart intruduces a 14-year-old Matt Witler on stage.
This diverse group of musicians melded into a band at Berklee, a musical hothouse and melting pot that makes for a rich environment, with students with varied musical influences drawn by the school's reputation and their own ambition to develop themselves and their music. All the members of the band mentioned the names of musicians at the very top of bluegrass and other roots music lists as performers and teachers who they were exposed to while attending lectures and lessons at Berklee. Hirshfeld said that Berklee “forced me to open my mind to a lot of different types of music which, I feel, made my banjo playing a lot more versatile and more interesting than it was before.”
As time passed, a process of growing together, of working to produce a musical synthesis, a synergy of ideas and skills, began to work its wonders. Band members recognized that while bluegrass instruments and forms had brought them together, tradition did not need to limit their development. In discussion, it rapidly becomes clear that the band members work closely together to approach a song, develop an arrangement, and work out how it will sound and feel to them and to their audience(s). Charles commented on their inclusion of traditional and innovative elements in their music: “I believe in building on the past and drawing inspiration from all those that have come before you, but in this day and age, boundaries between genres are being broken down and it’s open season for cross-pollination and mutual growth of music outside of label-bound communities.”
What do they think about where they might be heading? “We intend to keep pushing, keep writing, and continue to hold tight to our musical integrity,” says M'Gonigle. Witler adds to this, saying, “Hopefully this is where bluegrass is headed, a revered, preserved, and beloved art form, but also an influence to be mixed with many others in the exploration of honest musicality.” Hirshfeld, too, holds to the idea of bringing contemporary sensibility to the deep and important traditions of bluegrass music. He says, “ I think we have a very interesting place in the world of bluegrass because we are sort right in the middle of being traditional and being modern. I feel that this makes our music really accessible to both fans of super traditional bluegrass and fans of the most modern acoustic music. That all being said, I think it is very important to listen to, respect, and learn the traditional styles of bluegrass if you are playing one of these instruments.”
Witler points to the need for both joining together and seeking diversity when he says, “I would love for this band to reach a level of success where we can always have it as a project to come back to, but eventually I’d hope we could take more breaks and work on other things, while knowing that the Lonely Heartstring Band was a stable enough entity to not feel like we’re losing momentum if we’re not working it full time.”
That said, George Clements assures that the band is heading back to the studio soon to begin working on their second record. "My only hope for the future," he says, "is that we keep getting gigs and keep writing music that is relevant and interesting for us and our listeners.”
It's thrilling to watch a young, yet at the same time deeply experienced and widely thoughtful band coalesce into a rising force in any genre. The Lonely Heartstring Band, whose first recording was released by Rounder Records, is only five years old. They're young in the world of bluegrass, yet wise and thoughtful. See them live, if you get the chance, look for them near you, and enjoy them and their music.