Folks Festival Forewords: The Lone Bellow's Next Move Is New Record with Dave Cobb
No matter where they play, the Lone Bellow find a way to make a good impression.
When a music festival organizer offers you the hat off his sweat-soaked head as a token of admiration and appreciation, that's a clue you're doing something right.
Moments like those are what Zach Williams, fiery frontman, lead singer-songwriter and rebel rabble-rouser of the Lone Bellow, remembers and cherishes about his band's steady climb to prime time.
This remarkable year they began gathering in Nashville, their home away from home, to start work on album No. 3 in between a string of endless tour stops. That will include their first visit to the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival (5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 21), the three-day event in Lyons, Colorado, that opened Friday (Aug. 19).
What's left for a loving dad, husband and professional musician to accomplish -- other than maybe learning how to play the piano?
"I'm pretty simple," a humble Williams said near the end of a cellphone interview this month after he and his wife, still familiarizing themselves with the surroundings, guided their kids back to the place they've lived since January. "I want to write songs that I'm proud of. I want to play shows that I'm thankful to be a part of and," repeating it for emphasis, "I want to write songs that I'm proud of. ...
"I can drive myself crazy. Sometimes I'm kind of hard to be around when I get in that weird wrestling-with-my-own-self mode. I have to take a walk."
Williams and his bandmates previously based in Brooklyn have been in fast-forward mode since bursting onto the scene three years ago with their eponymous debut album. A well-rounded mix of signature three-part harmonies, electrified, foot-stomping anthems, gut-wrenching ballads and appealing stage presence made these roots artists a must-see act on the road.
In what seemed like a New York minute, Williams (acoustic guitar) and co-members Kanene Donehey Pipkin (mandolin, bass, keyboards), Brian Elmquist (guitars) and their backing rhythm section were playing major venues and prestigious festivals across the country.
"We started out years ago in Brooklyn with a bunch of neighbors as an eight-piece band," Williams recalled. "And there's absolutely no way that everybody could quit their (regular) jobs. We couldn't even fit everybody in a car."
The band of New York transplants from the South has undergone significant changes professionally and personally since establishing themselves in 2013, when, Williams said, "we were still more just like a group of buddies with a Kickstarter record than we were like an actual touring band kind of thing."
Williams also developed into quite the family man. Married to the woman he has known since they were kids in Kennesaw, Georgia, the native of nearby Acworth has four children with his wife Stacy, who gave birth to their first boy (Harlan) in April.
On the Lone Bellow's second album, 2015's Then Came the Morning, Williams gave shout-outs to his three daughters (Loretta, Betty and Hazel) -- all under the age of 8 -- and showed his love for the way they mispronounce the word tour, as in "Daddy's going on twirl again."
As family and touring life become entangled -- Elmquist and his wife also recently welcomed a baby boy -- those joyful experiences are likely to find their way on to the third album, with plans for an early 2017 release.
Rehearsals in a little Nashville garage have been ongoing for months, then they will begin recording in September at RCA Studio A with red-hot producer Dave Cobb, now the producer in residence at the legendary Music Row location where Chet Atkins made his mark.
"I feel like when we met, we just kind of hit if off," Williams said of Cobb, the fellow Georgian who was born in Savannah. "So I can't wait. Just trying to figure out what songs I'm actually gonna bring to the table. That's kind of the hardest part when you have like 65, 70 songs."
Sharing the songwriting workload are Elmquist, a former all-state high school football player in Georgia, and Pipkin, a former homecoming queen at Fredericksburg Christian High School in Virginia who's married to Bellow's bassist Jason Pipkin. After the trio lived within walking distance of each other for years in Brooklyn, they now reside in the Nashville neighborhood of Inglewood.
While the move was partly strategic -- making its central location easier to spend more time at home during tour breaks -- there also were financial reasons to consider.
"I was in Brooklyn for 10 years," said Williams, who was a church leader in the Park Slope neighborhood. "I wanted to live there for the rest of my life. I will move back. ... But the rent got to a place where every single one of my music friends, we all came up together in the open mics and the bars, everyone had to leave. No one could afford the rent anymore. ...
"So that was emotional, man. I mean we're still going through it right now. I think we tour so much that now home is more of a feeling than it is a location. And our spouses graciously invite us back into the rhythm of our family life."
Williams shows pride in the progression of his fellow band members as they attempt to add to their musical virtuosity -- the Pipkins often trade instruments they play, for instance. Feeling some pressure to avoid screwing up their second album, the Lone Bellow could have worried more about the dreaded sophomore jinx.
"But we also pushed back against that and tried to just protect ourselves from fear and making music our of fear," he added. "And I think that we accomplished that. Now this (next) album, I think we're just having a good time again. We've gone back to just like the joy of making music. ... The only fear is the challenge that we put on ourselves to try and make something worthwhile and honest. And I really like working out of that place."
Recently returning to the road after touring earlier this summer with the National, whose guitarist-keyboardist Aaron Dessner produced Then Came the Morning, the Lone Bellow are using audiences as a testing ground for their fresh material.
"As time goes on -- and we try our best to be prolific -- we're gonna end up trying out some new songs just to see how it feels," Williams said. "See what the interaction is between the listeners and ourselves. ... That's kind of how we find out what songs to put on a record. And I feel like the Folks Festival in Colorado would be a real safe place to do something like that."
The folks at Lyons-based Planet Bluegrass were so impressed with the Lone Bellow's 2014 appearances at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival -- three sets over the four-day weekend -- that they've been trying to get them to play the Folks Festival ever since.
"We love The Lone Bellow!" exclaimed Brian Eyster, Planet Bluegrass' director of communications who's heavily involved in booking the organization's high-profile festivals, including RockyGrass in late July. "Their Telluride main stage set was one of our 2014 season highlights. ... They were one of the first Folks Fest bands we reached out to last fall."
The feeling is mutual, though Williams wasn't entirely aware of the Planet Bluegrass/Folks Festival connection. The Lone Bellow's interaction with the Telluride staff led him to say, "They were just the sweetest people." He was so pumped up about playing the 41st annual event that he wrote a song for the second album titled "Telluride," finding the inspiration during the band's first visit to Denver in December 2013 for a show at the Bluebird Theater.
Relying on some mythical folklore from a friend about the southwest Colorado mountain town's origin, Williams included the lyrics "to hell you ride" in a sad story he said is "about a man and his horse, and his horse breaks its leg and he has to put down the only thing that he ever trusted. It's kind of a reflection of the human condition."
On a more cheerful note, the Telluride experience was "unnnn-believable," Williams said. He must have known the Lone Bellow was a hit among festival organizers, especially Planet Bluegrass honcho Craig Ferguson, whose green hat inscribed with the word "Staff" caught the singer's attention.
"He was like, 'You can have mine,' " Williams recalled. "He had been wearing it all day. It was really sweaty. So two became one, I guess. I put it on, felt very much part of the whole Bluegrass (Festival) situation."
Williams said it's still his customary headgear whenever he mows the lawn, but don't be surprised if you see him wearing it proudly around Lyons this weekend.
With the pleasant experience of Telluride still on his mind, the down-home boy at heart also fondly looked back on a more recent visit.
In a year of momentous occasions -- the birth of his son, "opening up for the National at the Greek (Theatre in Los Angeles) was pretty spectacular" among them -- Williams ruminated before nominating an epic experience for the band. Though he said the Shetland Islands are in "the middle of nowhere," the January trip to the Scottish archipelago northeast of the mainland stands out.
"The entire island came to the show," Williams said enthusiastically, not even mentioning that the Lone Bellow was called "Shetland's new favourite band" in the headline of a glowing review. "We stayed at this old hotel, the only hotel on the island, and there's this little old man that I would stay up late with. ... At night on an island north of Scotland where they have these huge Viking parades where they burn a boat in the middle of the river, staying up late talking to that old guy, yeah, I think that was the coolest thing to happen to the band this year."
Of course, with over four months remaining and a new album that needs recording in 2016, there could be more in store for the Lone Bellow.
Joined by drummer Justin Glasco, "a really old friend of me and Brian's," Williams said the five members form "a pretty tight-knit family."
After spending time around the Nationals' band of brothers Dessner and Devendorf (with frontman Matt Berninger), he realized, "Any kind of humans trying to collaborate on anything, it's gonna get complicated," admiring how they work together and deal with conflict at the same time.
The animated entertainer who still speaks with a Southern accent also feels good about how the Lone Bellow's members have banded together. Watching their musical growth, he's ready to reveal his secret desire to tickle the ivories.
With a potent, soulful voice that serves as his main instrument, the dream team player discounts his instrumental abilities by telling a joke: "I'm really good at the G chord and the capo. And I just move that around."
Williams is sincere about picking up a classic, upright piano, though, as long as he gets a good deal.
"Now that I have a living room that's larger than 500 square feet with six people, I think I'm gonna try to get one of those rescue pianos," he said, mentioning a place right down the street called Piano Rescue.
"They literally go and rescue pianos out of old houses," Williams added. "Like somebody passed away and they just go throw everything in the dump or something. And you can buy them for like $150. ... And you just gotta go and get it."
They've been getting it all right, from Brooklyn to Telluride to the Shetland Islands to Nashville. Now it's time to give one would-be rescuer and the Lone Bellow a tip of the cap, er, hat.
This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. Third in a series. See Part 1 on the Accidentals and Part 2 on Kathy Mattea. Concert photos by Michael Bialas. Tickets for the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival are available at shop.bluegrass.com/folks/tickets