You have to admire a state champion bluegrass group if they step outside of the parameters of the genre simply to follow their artistic goals. That's precisely what Richmond, Va.-based band Jackass Flats did this year. With the release of a new studio album titled Rusty Feeling, the group maneuvered around the strict boundaries established by folk music purists and reinvented themselves as a flexible rock band capable of handling an assortment of styles.
"When we started, we were hardcore bluegrass, but as our songwriting started to develop, it was informed by music from across the spectrum," says singer/guitarist Stephen Kuester.
Kuester and the band used to favor the traditional instrumentation of banjo, fiddle, mandolin, acoustic guitar, and the stand-up bass. They recently tinkered with the lineup last year. The quintet currently features Kuester on guitar and pedal steel, alongside Eddie Carlton on bass, Travis Rinehart on banjo and guitar, Cory Potrafka on keys and harmonica, and Scott Lewis on drums.
Considering the band's proximity to the Appalachians and the bluegrass communities along the ridge ways, Jackass Flats (the name refers to a roadside stop between Richmond and Williamsburg) will never shake the influence of the genre. Elements of bluegrass are scattered all over Rusty Feeling. That's fine with Kuester and the fellas.
"We're fortunate to live near the cradle of bluegrass," says Kuester. "While it's not what we do, specifically, it is where we got our start. We still have one foot planted in bluegrass, and those colors you can't wash out."
Recorded and engineered by Bobby Read (of Bruce Hornsby's band), Rusty Feeling sounds rich, happy, and bouncy, if not a little jagged. With the addition of drums and piano, they've morphed into a proper rock band with a heavy dose of alt-country in the mix.
From the swingin' country stylings of "Truth About Love" to the uptempo bluegrass of "Miracle," much of the album relates well to their previous material. Funkier standouts like the organ-propelled "Reckless" or the closing track "Everybody Knows" (a reggae-inflicted number that would make Burt Bacharach grin) sound like a different band all together.
"We had songs in the works from the old instrumentation," Kuester says of the making of the album. "Bobby Read's production wasn't heavy-handed, but it definitely pushed us along and helped us make the transition. We imagined what we wanted to hear, and we all made it happen."
The band sounds particularly confident as they jump from style to style.
"It's turned into a revue, honestly," says Kuester. "We can press a button and switch from pop-Americana to a classic country sound. That was the way it was with bands during the golden age of country music. That will always be there with us musically. Being able to switch around with this instrumentation is the big hook we throw audiences. It's more than just bluegrass, country, or originals. We strive to play and put out the music that we want to hear. That's our approach. Who knows where that will lead five years from now?"