Although the group has New York roots, where multi-instrumentalists Ian Craft and Jared Green first met at Ithaca College, the Howlin' Brothers are an almost-quintessential Nashville band. And their relocation to Nashville was hardly planned.
"We just moved down here on a whim," Craft recalls. "We'd never been to Nashville, but we just figured that, out of the cool music cities — New York, Los Angeles, Nashville — Nashville would be the coolest."
And, as it turns out, Craft and Green were about to get serious about making exactly the kind of music that flourishes in the hyper-competitive honky-tonk scene of Lower Broadway. Crafting a sound from a hodgepodge of influences, the two formed the Howlin' Brothers with bassist JT Huskey and quickly proved they were capable of bouncing from blues and bluegrass to Celtic jigs and reggae grooves. Effortlessly adding and subtracting instruments, influences, and styles, the duo brings a joyous, hootenanny spirit to the proceedings.
"It was just so much fun. The energy of the crowd was just so different than electric music," Craft says of the decision to start the group. "You can connect so much harder with people and dance with acoustic instruments, so we just decided to do that full-time."
What full-time meant, at least for a few years, was lots of gigs in the Lower Broadway vein, along with house painting on the side.
"We'd play eight times a week from Thursday to Sunday, and each gig would be four hours," Craft says, noting that the schedule was hardly unusual among Nashville musicians. "Some days would be a triple, playing 12 hours a day. Everybody down on Broadway plays four-hour sets, and a lot of people play two in a day. It drains you; it drains your soul. By the end of the day, you don't even want to play music."
Amid the toil, the band built a solid reputation as a great live act with an eclectic, multi-instrumentalist lineup capable of adapting a broad range of roots-music styles. A few albums and a few years later, a chance encounter with power-pop singer-songwriter and the Raconteurs' co-frontman Brendan Benson proved to be a turning point for the group.
"We met him through [singer-songwriter] Cory Chisel," says Craft. "We were playing at our friend Buddy's house, and it was an old-time jam — and Brendan was there. Buddy gets a call from him the next week and says, 'I need some guys to play on Cory Chisel's record that can play a ton of different instruments.' Buddy told him he should get the Howlin' Brothers!"
Benson ended up recording the band's next record and eventually put it out on his own label. The serendipitous relationship, in the end, gave the group the platform to transition from playing mostly on the Nashville circuit to touring nationally.
That Benson-produced LP, Trouble, also happens to be the band's best recording yet and was praised by the likes of Rolling Stone and American Songwriter for its rollicking, pretension-free take on traditional folk styles.
"We definitely lean more toward blues and old-time more so than bluegrass," Craft says, noting that the group tends to favor a more rock 'n' roll, punk-underground attitude despite their chops, something echoed by Green.
"We have an open-minded band collaboration. We've always loved bluegrass, old-time and blues music, but we just tend to write in more genres than that," he says. "I love the give-and-take interaction between us all, and there are no real rules to what we do. We just try to make each song rock."
And while many modern-day Americana bands pay lip service to this ideal, there does seem to be a genuine disregard for genre niceties in the Howlin' Brothers' music. While they might slide into a traditional honky-tonk number like "World Spinning Round"or a Cajun shuffle a la "Monroe," they just as often will come up with something that doesn't fit as easily within conventional lines, like the Warren Haynes co-write "Big Time," which features pulverizing slide banjo and harmonica for a blues-driven hoedown that feels both deeply traditional and yet original.
Both Craft and Green shrug a bit at how that balance works. "I think trying to write melodies on the banjo and fiddle allow more natural creativity when trying to keep something traditional-sounding," says Green. "I like trying to write two-part songs with some emphasis on the blues notes."
Craft says something similar about his slide-banjo, an instrument that few other groups incorporate into their playing.
"It was more common back in the Memphis Jug Band era and when, you know, the banjo was just a more common instrument," he says. "The popularity of Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs and bluegrass just kind of gave everybody the idea that the banjo should only sound like 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown.'"
Regardless of the how or why, one thing is for sure — The Howlin' Brothers have managed to forge their own sound amidst their traditionalist brethren.
"When we play at bluegrass festivals and we are definitely not the hit, and we might be looked down on a bit, but we'll probably attract a wider audience because of that too," Craft says. "We're just not that soft, one mic bluegrass-style band."