People want to be part of something real,” says John Cloyd Miller, vocalist-mandolinist for local bluegrassers Lo-Fi Breakdown.
He’s postulating about the “O Brother” phenomenon, the great bluegrass craze begun by the George Clooney film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and appears to be holding on, as attendance at bluegrass concerts and festivals (not to mention folk and other roots music fests) swells. That, and where he and his nattily dressed cohorts (Ian “Bean” McNeil, Garth Henry Schwellenbach, Rev. Rob Kilkenny, and “Fiddlin’” Ben Wartena) fit into the whole mess.
“It’s like the second folk revival,” he says. “People are again looking to traditional art forms and music that have stood the test of time ... and get back to their roots, especially in this day and age. I think it’s a good thing for bluegrass and traditional music, but I’m sure the kitschy appeal will wear off again in time, but, as before, the core fans will always be there.”
Lo-Fi plays to everybody, though: the crotchety, old-school bluegrass purists who treat traditional bluegrass as an art form with as much dogma as ancient martial arts (you must detune in order to tune, Grasshopper); the jam band crowd that has made the Jerry Garcia-David Grisman connection; the progressive “newgrass” crowd (jazzgrass, spacegrass) and, of course, those fly-by-nighters that enjoy the perceived kitsch and quirk in pickin’ and grinnin’. How they manage to satisfy everyone lies in a delicate balance of devotion and innovation.
Traditional bluegrass bubbled up in the 1940s, when Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys (with whom Miller’s grandfather Jim Shumate played, as well as with another seminal bluegrass outfit, Flatt and Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys) took harmony-heavy folk standards and played them faster, harder and with more technical finesse—that’s Lo-Fi’s foundation. “Our sound is very traditional in a lot of ways,” says Miller, who lists Lo-Fi’s big influences as the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, John Hartford and other pioneers of the bluegrass/mountain sound. But, he furthers, the members of Lo-Fi Breakdown love all types of music, ranging from Phish to AC/DC. The free-form element of the former is Lo-Fi’s chief method of innovation “because we are all influenced in some way the spontaneity and improvisation of the jam band sound.”
Miller figures their blend works because Lo-Fi has a “deep respect for the timeless art of traditional acoustic music, mountain music, bluegrass and old time music,” as well as a stated artistic drive to create something original within those parameters—something real. That’s what drew Lo-Fi into existence in 2002. An embryonic, jammier version of the band had existed for a few years, playing in Salt Lake and Park City, occasionally with an old-time group called the Foggy Memory Boys. When both bands broke up, members of each came together as the current Lo-Fi Breakdown.
Since then, they’ve been welcomed with open arms by the local bluegrass community. KRCL’s bluegrass guru Tony “The Old Man” Polychronis gives them big ups (“They are real tight, they are real good, they’ve got enthusiasm and they know the tradition”) and spins tracks from their disc, Live (LoFiBreakdown.com), and clubs are receptive, too, since crowds dig the band’s tight, professional performances. They’ve played just about everywhere in Salt Lake and Park City, and they’ve had the honor of playing several local and regional festivals, including the 16th Annual Grand Targhee Bluegrass Festival earlier this month with Del McCoury, Sam Bush and Hot Rize. At a previous festival, they even got a chance to chat with Bush, who was supportive.
“Most folks are pretty open-minded and accepting of new artists in the genre,” says Miller. “The bluegrass scene is almost like no other, in that a nationally known performer may walk off stage and be willing to meet with, and in some cases jam with, their fans. Bluegrass is everyone’s music, and we just enjoy being part of it all.”