“I’m On Fire”
Heroes and Heretics
Pinecastle Records, 2008
I first learned of Town Mountain during the San Francisco Bluegrass and Old-Time Festival in February, 2008. They were playing on a triple bill at the Café Du Nord on Market Street with two other bands I found very forgettable. I walked in off the street to listen in a room half-full with about 25 people. We stood, hands in pockets, gingerly rocking back and forth, unsure of what to expect as four young men straight out of North Carolina and one young woman who they claimed to have met a half hour prior (they apparently had to call her in at the last minute to play fiddle because their normal guy hadn’t made the trip), took the stage. An hour later, we two dozen revelers had been converted into a sweaty, flannel-clad mass of stomping, skipping dancers by some of the fastest, most soulful picking and wailing I had ever heard. The band wasn’t contemporary alt-country, it wasn’t Americana, it wasn’t a take on something from the past, nobody was rapping over the banjo, nobody was playing a tabla, nothing was getting “fused.” These were pure, in-your face, Earl Scruggs/Lester Flatt-type breakdowns that filled the room with kinetic energy and demanded motion.
Town Mountain’s website describes the group as a “hard driving Carolina string band.” If you’ve ever even considered going to see a Bluegrass show, you probably know that “hard driving” is as overused an adjective in describing the bands as “tour de force” or “riveting” are in describing movies. In the case of Town Mountain though, I’d say the description is accurate. Experiencing their live performance spurred me to such a frenzy that you could have harnessed me up and driven me to Sacramento that night. That’s why it’s a little ironic that the Town Mountain song I often find myself secretly singing while alone in the car on my commute home isn’t a typical ramble at all. In fact, it isn’t even one of the band’s originals; it’s their cover of Bruce Springsteen’s yearning 1984 ballad “I’m on Fire.”
Guitarist/vocalist Robert Greer’s singing captures all the desperate longing of The Boss’ original, but Greer’s ardor seems to flow from a different reservoir; rather than the hooting, hollering bravado of a man with his sleeves rolled up over his biceps, I hear the ache, the loneliness of a man whose libido is just as essential, but less certain that it will be fulfilled. Greer’s vocal is pushed to the forefront of the song, creating an atmosphere of intimate masculinity, and his voice melds beautifully with that of mandolinist Phil Barker during the chorus. Their harmony finds its counterpoint in Bobby Britt’s fiddling, which carries the melody along a slow course of surging emotions until finally erupting to a crescendo toward the end of the song, evoking the experience of building anticipation before finally falling into the arms of a lover. Town Mountain reminds me that romance and passion isn’t just for rock star hunks, it lives inside of the rest of us anonymous schlubs as well.
Town Mountain recently released their third studio album, Leave the Bottle. They are currently on tour. If they are coming to your area, I highly recommend you check them out. If you don’t mind a little hard drivin’, that is.