IN THREE-PART HARMONY
by Kathy Sands-Boehmer
Tumbling Bones is a young string band with an old sound. Their voices combine in a musical pastiche that is reminiscent of years past but they’re actually a contemporary band hailing from Portland, Maine. Pete Winn (guitar, percussive dance), Jake Hoffman (banjo, upright bass) and Kyle Morgan (guitar, upright bass) sing three-part harmonies that would make bluegrass pickin’ angels jealous. Their sound is timeless.
Pete and and Jake met as college freshman and discovered their love of roots music and formed a rock ’n’ roll string band called The Powder Kegs. They then went on to form Tumbling Bones in 2011 and started to learn bluegrass, jug band music, and class R&B that focused on their vocals. The missing part of the musical puzzle came along when they met Kyle and they were able to add more texture and fullness to their harmonies.
I was lucky enough to experience Tumbling Bones at last year’s NERFA (North East Regional Folk Alliance) conference. I came away a fan. It was next to impossible to not be caught up in the joyful music that they make. Listening to their music makes me want to jump up and dance and I really can’t dance. Take one listen to their debut album, Loving a Fool, and you’ll feel like you’re front and center at the Grand Ole Opry. Yes, they’re that good.
Tumbling Bones was one of 24 Emerging Artists chosen for this year’s Falcon Ridge Festival. The Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival in Hillsdale, NY. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed 10 minutes). The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year. To say that Tumbling Bones was a hit at the festival is an understatement. They then went on to play the Podunk Bluegrass Music Festival.
Here are some questions I posed to the band:
Noise: Tumbling Bones. Tumbling Dice. Do I detect some Rolling Stones influence?
Tumbling Bones: We’re definitely Stones fans, but the name comes from our practice of rolling dice on tour to decide matters like who sleeps on the bed vs. the floor, who has to get up at 7 a.m. to move the car, who gets the last chicken leg, and things like that.
Noise: Your bio states that you’re inspired by “old” music and that your music is heavily based on bluegrass and pre-World War II music. How did this kind of music take hold of your soul? Were you ostracized by your peers for not liking what was the popular music at the time?
Tumbling Bones: We were all born in the ’80s, so we grew up with a good dose of rock ’n’ roll, we all had high school rock bands, and we still listen to it a lot. Kyle (guitar, bass) still writes and plays really good rock ’n’ roll songs. It wasn’t until our college years when we found that the influences of some of our favorite artists spoke to us in a very raw, honest way. And though we do have contemporary influences as well, it’s the basic forms of bluegrass songs, old-time ballads, blues and jug band shouts, and country songs that really make us tick. By the time we got into the “old” stuff, I think our friends actually thought it was pretty cool. We’ll keep letting them think that.
Noise: How long has the band been together?
Tumbling Bones: The band has been together since early 2011, though Pete (guitar, harmonica, dancing) and Jake (banjo, bass) have played together on and off for 10 years. Kyle joined the band in early 2013, and with him he brought his incredible songwriting, which really rejuvenated our sets and also his great voice, which allows for lots of three-part harmonies, the centerpiece of our sound. We’ve been based in Portland, Maine since late 2012.
Noise: You’re known for your gospel-tinged a cappella songs. Singing together without the aid of instruments can be kind of scary. Did you figure out pretty quickly that your voices melded in such a way that you could pull off adding an a cappella element to your show or was it hit and miss for a while?
Tumbling Bones: Pete and Jake had been singing together for a long time, and adding Kyle’s voice was a natural fit. We knew all along that vocals were Tumbling Bones’ strong suit, and we love the opportunity to challenge ourselves with a capella pieces. Where our vocal sound differs from other bands is that our voices are all very strong and distinct. We don’t try to sound like one unified voice, but for some reason we blend together really well, even while the listener can still identify whose voice is whose. Even if we’re singing a background part, it’s important to us that the character of the singer’s voice is still in an “oo” or “la-la-la.”
Noise: Tell us about the making of your debut album, Loving a Fool. What were the recording sessions like?
Tumbling Bones: We recorded Loving a Fool at the Great North Sound Society in Maine, way out in Parsonsfield near the New Hampshire border. The live room is a new building, but the control room and the rest of the facilities are contained in an 18th century farmhouse. It was truly an inspiring place to be—beautiful, comfortable, quiet, no Internet. The takes were great, mostly because we spent a long time having former musical partners critique our songs and arrangements before ever entering the studio. We knew what we wanted out of most every song we recorded, and we feel like we nailed it. Our engineer, Chris Connors, and our guest musicians, Timmy Findlen and Tyler Leinhardt, were all really fun to hang out with and are superb workers. We had also had lots of fun toys (pianos, organs, gongs) at our fingertips, though we wanted the album to sound as similar to our live show as possible. It’s by far the best recording we’ve ever made, and we’re truly proud of it.
Noise: What’s the story behind the traditional covers that you included on the album?
Tumbling Bones: Because our live show is a mix of old songs and originals, we wanted the album to reflect our love of old and new. The traditionals we included on Loving a Fool are songs on which we feel like we put our own Tumbling Bones stamp. We wanted to show our passion for old music and how a simple song can stand the test of time while also displaying our distinct styles of instrumental and vocal arrangement. We didn’t dare take any traditionals and make them unrecognizable from their older forms, but instead added our own strengths to them and show that old songs can be just as powerful today.
Noise: We need to know about your experience on Prairie Home Companion. How did that come about?
Tumbling Bones: Pete and Jake were in a five-piece string band called The Powder Kegs from ’06-’08. Pete’s mom entered our CD into Prairie Home‘s “People In Their Twenties” talent contest, and we were chosen as finalists to play live on the show in St. Paul. Luckily our fiddler had just turned 20 by the time we flew to Minnesota. Each of the six finalists got to play some songs, and then the audience as well as any radio listeners voted by paper, phone, or online ballots, and by the end of the show the winner was announced. We ended up edging out the Sweetback Sisters for the title. We also got to be involved in the Guy Noir sketch and we got to sing a bunch of songs with Garrison at the after-party. It was an incredible experience to be behind-the-scenes at that show. Everyone was really professional while at the same time very relaxed and flexible. They do an amazing production.
Noise: Also, you’ve been chosen to do some shows courtesy of the U.S. State Department. What’s all that about?
Tumbling Bones: We haven’t yet gone on tour with American Music Abroad, a program run by the non-profit organization American Voices in conjunction with the U.S. State Department. This fall we’ll be traveling to a developing part of the world to perform, teach, and collaborate with local musicians in four or five different countries. It was our third year applying, our second year as finalists, and to be chosen this year was really a dream-come-true. We can’t wait to find out where we’re going!
Noise: Pete, the fact that you do percussive dance as part of your show is a real crowd-pleaser. Is this a skill you’ve had for a while or did you learn how to do it once you got into the music scene?
Tumbling Bones: Definitely the latter. Attending old-time music festivals down south I picked it up at workshops and just by observing other dancers. I’ve been toying with dance for about five years, but I’ve only been performing it for a year and a half.
Noise: I noticed that you keep a grip type material on the underside of your wooden dance block. Have you ever had any close calls while dancing? I wouldn’t want to hear about you slipping off a stage or into the audience!
Tumbling Bones: I actually usually only bring my portable dance platform to festivals since most of the ground at festivals is grass (and hence, not danceable). Most of the time I just leave myself at the mercy of whatever surface is available be it wood, stone, brick, hard plastic, or tile. The surfaces I dance on would probably make tap-dancing purists cringe.
Noise: Tell us about your experience at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. You were chosen as part of the Emerging Artists of 2014. Were your expectations met by this well-respected fest?
Tumbling Bones: Everyone was super helpful and welcoming from our arrival to our departure. Being an Emerging Artist was great: we got to perform for hundreds of appreciative listeners.
Noise: You also made an appearance at the Podunk Bluegrass Music Festival this summer. What was that event like?
Tumbling Bones: Podunk was fun, especially since I personally grew up in central Connecticut. The prize we received for winning the competition was a new Telefunken microphone. Coincidentally, it turns out the representative from Telefunken at the festival—Alan Venitosh—is an old friend of mine from growing up. He actually recorded my high school band in his studio 12 years ago! So it was pretty cool to be handed the prize from an old friend and collaborator.
Noise: What’s the most fun about touring? And what’s your least favorite aspect of touring?
Tumbling Bones: Most fun: meeting new people, seeing new places, and collaborating with new musicians. Least favorite: the unhealthy lifestyle that comes with sitting in a car all the time and eating road food.
Noise: What’s up next for Tumbling Bones?
Tumbling Bones: We’ve been touring a lot behind the release of Loving a Fool in the U.S. and Europe. This March we went from Maine to Pennsylvania, April we were all over Ireland, May took us to Germany and England, and in June we started in North Carolina and ended back in Maine. The rest of the summer was more northeast touring from Pennsylvania to Prince Edward Island. This fall we’ll be going to yet-unidentified countries in the developing world. We’re in the middle of a folk/Americana radio campaign pushing Loving a Fool as far as it will go. We’re getting a lot of spins in Ireland and the UK, and we’re doing our best to break into American airwaves, ears, and hearts.
Get some of that old-time spirit by visiting the band on the web.
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