As ubiquitous as they are talented, Front Country is my favorite music discovery of 2018. I first had the pleasure of getting lost in their dynamic, cohesive and intimate performance last April at the Charm City Bluegrass Festival. In a lineup which included The SteelDrivers, Jeff Austin Band, Billy Strings, Larry Keel Experience and the Travelin’ McCourys, the energy of this unknown string band, their confident stage presence and skilled picking were festival standouts.
Later that summer at Virginia Root’s festival, Rooster Walk, Front Country’s lead singer and songwriter, Melody Walker, won over the crowd with her charm and humor. Never having been to Rooster Walk before, I opted to attend largely because of Front Country’s participation. There was so much memorable about that band from their Charm City performance! Walker’s soulful and powerful vocals. The musicality of the remainder of the Front Country quintet, the mark of a true (with a capital B) Band. Each member’s pluck and mettle showcased.
Front Country are Bay Area natives. They got their start as part of an informal, invitational monthly jam. Individually, the usual aspects of Appalachian bluegrass are present in Front Country. As a cohesive whole, mandolinist Adam Roszkiewicz, guitarist Jacob Groopman, bassist Jeremy Darrow, violinist Leif Karlstrom and Melody Walker, guitarist and lead vocalist, cross that genre’s boundaries in new and interesting ways.
Front Country immediately garnered successes at the 2012 Rocky Grass Festival. In 2013, they were Telluride Band Competition Winners, with “a sound,” the band describes,” as lying “somewhere between indie folk and Americana—a genre some might call “Roots Pop.” The band released its first full length album, “Sake of the Sound,” in the fall of 2014. Their second, 2017 album, “Other Love Songs,” charted #2 on Billboard Bluegrass Albums.
Pearl Street Warehouse’s intimate venue was perfect place to hear Front Country’s talents. Walker shared her vibrant energy with the crowd. Conversational and funny, with a living room vibe, she began the show with “If Something Breaks,” a deft summary of every love relationship’s core and my personal favorite from “Other Love Songs.”
We can love like a well-oiled machine
We can love like something that your mama never seen
Even in her dreams
We can fight till the cows come home
We can yell like a lonesome moonlight freight train whistle blows
And say what we don’t mean
Framed by Adam Roszkiewicz and Jacob Groopman’s passionate harmonies as well as Jeremy Darrow and Leif Karlstrom’s delicate yet frenzied picking, the song recalls perfectly the haunting readiness just beneath the surface of romantic love.
In Front Country’s third song of the evening, “I Don’t Want to Die Angry,” Walker’s understated, reluctantly brokenhearted croon added to the escalating energy of the strings. Goopman’s powerful voice melded with Walker’s, a perfect complement. The song was a no-holds-barred tour de force. The band followed with a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi.” Walker, Roszkiewicz, and Groopman’s harmonies remained spot on, paying appropriate homage to greatness.
Front Country’s show at Pearl Street Warehouse simply confirmed that this band is one to follow. Let this California gem enrich your life.
A concert junky, music aficionado, and live music reviewer for Hill Rag and DC Music Review, Leanne Tankel studied writing at both UC Berkeley (BA) and Boston University (MA). In addition to music reviews, she writes prose and her manuscript, Broken Hallelujah: notes from a marriage, was a 2011 short-list finalist for the Santa Fe Literary Awards program. Leanne lives with her three sons and two pugs in Northern Virginia.