In a city known for its history of grunge, the folk niche continues to find a presence in Seattle. It seems the ripped jeans are being replaced with rolled ones, the angsty attitude with light-hearted melodies and the hard electric guitars with acoustic sting instruments. As for bluegrass band Nettle Honey, they are pushing Seattle’s musical scene to a new place by pursuing an old folk genre filled with banjos, fiddles and mandolins.
The five band members are all undergraduate students at the University of Washington, where they met. The band started out three years ago as “Old Technology.” However, when a few members weren’t working or left, they fell under the radar for a while. The remaining members, Colin Sterling, Rex Thompson and Johnny Fitzpatrick continued playing together during this lull. In January 2008 they added bass player Will Jameson only to be followed with fiddler Brittany Newell that May.
Since the addition of the new members their music has moved beyond bluegrass covers as they started dabbling in some “artsy, weirder folk music” as well as some old time, according to Sterling.
Thompson added: “The songs we’ve written have become a lot more composed, like their not just verse chorus, verse chorus, they’ve got a lot more intricacy to them now.”
Jameson explained that although bluegrass tradition is certainly not native to the Northwest “I think Seattle is a very accepting city for new music,” noting that “popular music is really coming back to acoustic roots.” Referencing indie bands such as the Fleet Foxes, Iron and Wine, Bon Iver, and Joanna Newsom, when people hear those acoustic artists, “bluegrass seems more accessible” said Jameson.
Other local old time musicians such as old time band The Tall Boys and Portland’s Foghorn Stringband have been major influences for Nettle Honey, and laid the groundwork for the bluegrass scene in the Northwest.
Fitzpatrick distinguishes “old time” from “bluegrass,” bluegrass being based more on the individual, and solo work with accompaniment. Old time, by contrast is where there is a single tune everyone is working off of and tends to be more banjo and fiddle centric.
Although there has definitely been growing popularity for folk in Seattle, Sterling laments that in such a large city it has been challenging to find the small acoustic community they desire. Instead they have played at both hip-hop and metal shows. “We were shredding, it was like the extreme,” said Newell.
Common venues for Nettle Honey include the University District’s Farmers Market, house parties, cafés, and benefits around campus. They will also be playing this upcoming weekend at the Northwest Folklife Festival, followed by the Bainbridge Bluegrass Festival in July. An attractive part of bluegrass to Nettle Honey is its malleability based on venue, playing slower more traditional songs at a café, or high-energy dance music at a party.
“You have the best of both worlds,” said Sterling.
Thompson explained that bluegrass is unique because “you can have five people that have played together ever, and they can play a pretty darn good bluegrass song, just off the bat.”
They also noted that the fan base is a diverse group of people.
“One of my favorite things about it is, everybody seems to like it, even if they wouldn’t admit it, or download it or wouldn’t buy a CD or anything, when were at the Market on a Saturday and it’s sunny, everybody that walks by- you know- feels better afterwards” said Thomson.
A fellow folk musician, Fin Stahl, who played before them at Parnassus last week, summed up their live performance best: “It was like a long cool drink.”
May 25 2009 Folklife (Fisher Green Stage) Seattle
May 30 2009 Sushi house with Dovekins Bellingham
Jun 6 2009 Mr Spots Chai House with Dovekins Ballard
Jul 25 2009 Bainbridge Island Bluegrass Festival Bainbridge
The Band Members:
Guitar, Harmonica, Vocals
Colin Sterling has a background in songwriting, but no formal music theory training. He is majoring in English and has been playing guitar for four years. His major influence is Jason Webley.
Will Jameson is a Creative Writing major with a background in classical music and music Theory. He has been playing bass for nine years and his main influence is Edgar Meyer.
Brittney Newell is majoring in Music Education and has been playing violin since age nine. She played classical violin in high school but is now branching out with folk and bluegrass. “It’s music you can play outdoors, that’s why I like it,” said Newell.
Rex Thompson has been playing mandolin for four years. He is an Atmospheric Science major and was influenced largely by Kristy Lee, and classical or intricate music.
Johnny Fitzpatrick has been playing banjo for 8 years and was introduced to bluegrass by his brother. He is majoring in Biology. As for his enjoyment of bluegrass: “There’s definitely nothing like playing music for people to dance to, it’s really fun.”