In recent years Boston has become known as a hotbed of innovation in bluegrass music. Bands like Crooked Still, The Infamous Stringdusters, Chasing Blue, The Lonely Heartstring Band, and the Boston Boys have either come together in the American Roots Program at Berklee College of Music or contain significant numbers of Berklee graduates and have spawned what some call “the Berklee sound,” either in derision, recognition, jealousy or all three.
A 2005 article in the Boston Globe heralded the coming of bluegrass as a “sanctioned subject of study” at Berklee during the first semester of 2006. Bluegrass had been a subject of student interest and enthusiasm for several years, but Roger Brown, the newly installed president of the college, was from Georgia, where bluegrass music is in the air. Other acclaimed programs at South Plains College in Texas and East Tennessee State University had paved the way, making it logical for Berklee to add this hybrid form of American music to its curriculum. Sarah Jarosz, a student at the nearby Boston Conservatory, was busy making her mark. The school offered a Presidential Scholarship to Sierra Hull, who spent two years there. And the Berklee sound, whatever that is, was born. A dozen years later, Mile Twelve became the second “Berklee Band” to receive a Momentum Award from IBMA.
First awarded in 2012, the Momentum Awards seemed like a superfluous award designed to provide content for one of the several banquets held at each IBMA meeting. While divided on some issues, bluegrass people seem to share a love of eating. If life followed art, it would seem that the Momentum Awards would be part of a natural progression. An award winner early in a career would later win an IBMA Award at the highly touted IBMA Award Show. Much later in their career they might earn a Distinguished Achievement Award, or be inducted in that holy of holies, the IBMA Hall of Fame, which this year added a third award to help make up for the legion of overlooked bluegrass greats. So far, only two Momentum Award-winning musicians have taken the second step up the ladder, with Molly Tuttle and Patrick McAvinue each winning an Instrumentalist of the Year award this year. However, a look at the history of the winners suggests more to come. In addition, the Momentum Awards in 2017 seemed to take on a new gravitas as the quality of their awards banquet matured and took on added weight. Let’s take a look at IBMA Momentum Band of the Year: Mile Twelve.
Mile Twelve came together in the fall of 2014. Composed of five accomplished musicians from a variety of backgrounds, the band has followed a path that, today, seems to propel young, professional musicians to prominence. Performances in band contests or showcase events at Grey Fox in New York, FreshGrass in North Adams, MA, Thomas Point Beach in ME, and the Joe Val Festival, a winter festival held in Boston, as well as being an official showcase band at the 2017 IBMA World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, has propelled them to national attention. Their rendition of the Stanley Brothers song “Our Last Goodbye” was featured on the Spotify “Fresh Bluegrass” playlist. Here’s a performance of it:
The four original members of Mile Twelve were well-received as they developed their own characteristic sound and repertoire, but there was still something missing: the signature tone of the mandolin. This hole was filled when David Benedict joined the band this year. From Clemson, SC, he graduated in 2013 from Bryan College in Tennessee, where he studied with Matt Flinner, and gained valuable experience with a variety of progressive musicians, including touring for two years with Missy Raines & the New Hip.
Evan Murphy, a singer/songwriter on guitar, came late to bluegrass, first picking up the guitar at age 18. He comes from Milton, MA, and earned his degree in music and theater at Boston College. He studied bluegrass and voice with Michael Daves in New York and played with the New York City Guitar Orchestra. His vibrant tenor voice carries the characteristic high lonesome sound of bluegrass along with a touch of folk idiom, reflecting his far-reaching background. Here he is with Mile Twelve singing his own composition, "The Margaret Keene."
Catherine (BB) Bowness has, perhaps, the most unusual background in the band. A native of New Zealand, she first picked up a banjo when she was 12. In 2006 she received the Auckland Folk Festival's Frank Winter Memorial Award, “presented to a talented young performer or performers chosen by the festival committee.” This award provided her with sufficient funds to travel to the U.S. to “attend festivals and bluegrass summer school.” She won the 2015 FreshGrass Banjo Contest while attracting significant attention for her driving Scruggs style accompanied by flawless melodic picking. Here’s Lester Flatt’s “Little Girl from Tennessee” from the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in 2016.
Bass player Nate Sabat’s primary background is in choral singing. He comes from New York City, where he attended LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, which is located in Lincoln Center. LaGuardia is one of nine special high schools operated by the city. Students wishing to attend must be selected after auditions held in November and December. Nate provides tuneful harmonies as well as the rock solid bass required of bluegrass.
Bronwyn Keith-Hynes is a 2013 graduate of Berklee College of Music, where she matriculated at age 16. She has been a familiar fill-in fiddler with a number of bands for some years. In 2014, Bronwyn won the fiddle contest at Walnut Valley in Winfield, KS, one of the most prestigious instrumental contests in world. Bronwyn has taught in the Berklee five-week summer program for the past two years. The summer program has functioned as a major recruiting tool for the college, bringing talented young high school students to the campus in Boston for an immersion experience. Here’s Keith-Hynes kicking off Bill Monroe’s “In Despair.”
While Mile Twelve is widely viewed as a Berklee band, it’s clear that its members come from diverse musical backgrounds. They were attracted to Boston because of the rich tradition of bluegrass music in the city and region, going back to the days of Hazel and Mack McGee’s White Mountain Bluegrass, the Lilly Brothers, Don Stover, and Joe Val, as well as the Hillbilly at Harvard radio program, founded in 1948 and still running on Harvard’s WHRB. Another Boston institution that gleefully backed bluegrass for many years were Click & Clack, the Tappet Brothers of “Car Talk” fame on NPR.
Mile Twelve, having won the 2017 Momentum Award at IBMA’s World of Business, stands as a first-rate representative of an important region where a rich traditional bluegrass community stands side by side with a roiling experimental world of covers and contemporary compositions. Here they are with Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” which they also performed at the Momentum Awards Banquet in Raleigh.
Mile Twelve is currently on tour in Australia and New Zealand. Their first full-length CD, called Onwards, will be released Oct. 27.