"I never even thought about any of our songs being labeled as country songs until someone said, 'Hey, we can take this to country radio and CMT,' " says Tyler Mechem, the singer, guitarist, and main songwriter of busy Charleston group Crowfield. "I thought, well, maybe it is. But now that we've had the same band together, we simply play the songs the way we play them."
Only two years ago, Mechem faced a bright-but-uncertain future as the frontman of a newly-named, quickly-assembled band. He and his longtime songwriting/piano-playing partner Joe Giant spent considerable time, money, and effort working on the official Crowfield debut album with a gallery of top studio players in Atlanta. It was a fresh but slightly wobbly new start.
"Maybe as a symptom of talking to labels and managers and listening to them a little too much, we kind of talked about ideas of how to work the album, considering taking it to Nashville and doing some country radio stuff with it," Mechem remembers. However, he and the band convey a bolder sense of confidence and independence these days.
Mechem and Giant played around Charleston for years as a duo under the name of Bell, gigging with occasional guest players. While Bell worked within a modern alternative-rock style, Crowfield aimed for a more atmospheric, emotive, and romantic Americana/rock thing.
After the 2008 release of the twangy-but-polished Goodbye, Goodnight, So Long Midwestern (Ten Star), healthy buzz in the scene fueled momentum as things started happening for the band. For Mechem, the exhilaration of taking such major steps came with a little bit of anxiety and a minor identity crisis, too.
"We arranged songs based on that kind of advice, instead of playing them the way our instincts told us," says Mechem. "We've now gotten away from letting it be country and just playing things the way we think they should be playing within the set list.
"I think we've gotten away from that rootsy-to-the-point-of-almost-sounding-country sound these days," he adds. "We've turned the electric guitars up a bit. We don't have the pedal steel with us. The old songs are more energetic now than they were on the album, and there's a more dynamic element there on stage."
If 2008 was a period of transition for Mechem and Giant's full band, 2009 served as a period of solidification and self-realization. Drummer Parker Gins settled into the rhythm section right away. Bassist Jonathan Gray (formerly of Jump) and guitarist Micah Nichols regular played with the group on the road and in town. The ideas and rough sketches of Crowfield eventually took shape as a band with an indefinable personality.
"Micah is a full-time guitar player, and Johnny is just about the only bass player we've played with over the last year," says Mechem. "We realized that we had the right musical chemistry early on. We also noticed that the personal chemistry was right, too."
Mechem and Giant enjoyed tinkering with the instrumentation during the making of Goodbye, Goodnight, So Long Midwestern, and they regularly assemble extra brass and/or strings at big shows like this week's gig at the Farm. They'll welcome a three-piece horn section (alto sax, tenor sax, and trombone) to the stage alongside a three-piece string section (violins and cello) for several songs during the set.
"Joe has arranged the extra strings this month," Mechem says. "He wrote all the arrangements for them, and I'm really excited to play with them. It's new to me. We rearranged some of the songs from the album for this, so some of them might be a little more epic-sounding. We hope to build the show up a little bit, and not start out too balls-to-the-wall, although some of these new tunes get really rockin' later in the set."
A dynamic creative streak over the last year resulted in Mechem penning over 30 tunes — many of which evolved from collaboration with all the members of the band.
Crowfield traveled extensively in 2009, including stints opening for jam band Rusted Root and a handful of headlining tours out West. They already have plans to tour the regional clubs and hit the label showcases this spring. More studio sessions with engineer Rick Beato in Atlanta are in the works, too.
"We're working hard on this new music," says Mechem. "We've had a lot of time to really work on being a band. When Goodbye, Goodnight, So Long Midwestern came out, it was just me and Joe with a handful of studio musicians. Things are different now. The music took on a little bit of a new life. People started putting their own taste and personality to things. Crowfield finally started to form a new identity."