While some may think the term “Southern music” requires specific geographical conditions to be met, the Howlin’ Brothers prove this designation has more to do with inspiration than location.
The Howlin’ Brothers are Ian Craft, Ben Plasse and Jared Green, and the band was formed while the three attended Ithaca College in central New York. However, their Northern roots trace back even farther as they were born and raised in places like Wisconsin, New York and Massachusetts.
Their new album Howl is a musical tour of the sonic South with stops that include New Orleans jazz, Kentucky bluegrass, the Mississippi Delta blues stomp, Appalachian gospel, vintage Nashville country and more. Swapping instruments and vocal duties with ease, the Howlin’ Brothers showcase a creativity and chemistry that translates to a fresh, familial sound. While they may not be actual siblings, their kindred musical spirits will have you thinking otherwise.
In a recent interview with CMT Edge, Craft talked about the band’s unique musical approach.
CMT Edge: Let’s start with the logistics. How did three guys from the North wind up getting together and starting an old-time Americana acoustic trio based in Nashville?
Ian Craft: We were all friends at Ithaca College. Jared and I started picking bluegrass tunes together. Neither of us knew a whole lot about it, but we were fascinated by the sound. Jared, my brother Brian and I all moved to Nashville in 2005 to play music. House painting was what we did for about three years before the music really started picking up.
We had several bass players: David Spicher [son of the famed fiddler Buddy Spicher], Dom Fisher, Jake Cox and our longest-term bassist J.T. Huskey [son of the late Roy Huskey Jr., a legendary studio bassist in Nashville]. Ben Plasse moved down soon after but was busy on the road doing sound on several musical theater shows.
As fate would have it, Ben got a break from the sound work. He picked up an upright bass from an old friend and has been playing full time with us for about a year and a-half now. We all had a love for acoustic old-time, blues and bluegrass, so it was a natural fit for us all to start playing together. It felt like a sign as well because we got our name from Ben’s teacher, Pablo Cohen, who is a great guy and a world-renowned classical guitarist from Argentina. He heard Ben, Jared, Dom and me singing some original bluegrass tunes at his guitar recital, and he said to us, “Who is these guys, the Howlin’ Brothers?” We said “yes” and moved to Nashville with that name.
So fate has brought the three of us together, and we’re as strong as blood brothers. We eat, sleep and play music around one another more than most families probably do. So when people ask, “Are you really brothers?” we always say, “No, but we fight like brothers.” Just some of the time though. Not all the time.
All three of you are talented multi-instrumentalists and certainly created a wide variety of sounds on Howl. Does that have more to do with your own individual musical backgrounds, or have you picked up additional instruments along the way?
Both. We all love music deeply. It’s what we live and breathe. I think it was natural that we all started playing the instruments that were around — banjos, fiddles, mandolins. Jared and Ben were originally guitarists, and I’m a percussionist. As a percussionist, you are expected to learn a lot — drum set, rudimental drumming, mallets, even steel drums. This constant excitement of learning new things carried on to stringed instruments for me. There is nothing like the feeling of grasping a new concept or instrument. It’s rewarding and addictive.
Jay and Ben are also learning all the time — from fiddle to mandolin or whatever they might pick up that day. Our house is like a minischool of the arts. Constant racket is always pouring out. Our apologies to the neighbors. Certainly our friendship amongst the band has also grown our love for all sorts of instruments and styles. Next on the list is pedal steel. There’s always room for more knowledge and instruments.
What do you draw from for your songwriting? And what goes into the decision-making process when rearranging traditional songs and picking covers?
I think we all draw from our life experiences. Some folks are good at writing fantasy situations, but I think, in general, we write what we feel in life. Our slogan is “bluegrass, heartache and soul.” That stands true to everything we write. Pain brings creativity to the surface like nothing else can, so God bless those heartaches.
The covers come from our love of everything good and tasty, like “Boatman Dance” and “Take This Hammer” — two traditional tunes that we arranged to fit the Howlin’ sound. We generally just morph into the arrangement. We aren’t an over-rehearsed group of guys. Not that we don’t take it seriously. On the contrary, we’re dead serious, but we feel that gritty, loose and sloppy are part of our mantra. “My Dog Can’t Bark” is an Otis Smothers tune that I heard on a Chess recording of Muddy Waters’ music. It shows our desire to play anything that we like and make it Howlin’ Brothers-flavored.
You guys play around with a lot of musical styles. Is this an intentional decision to mix things up, or does it just come out naturally when the three of you start playing together?
It is a natural thing. We all come from different backgrounds, and we all seem to love similar styles and genres. When one of us brings something new to the table, we all listen, learn and keep rolling. We tighten up arrangements — live usually as we see what works best — but rarely do we intentionally try to set out to blur traditions. I think that traditional music has always been changing from generation to generation, and it’s passed down from one person to the next. It’s always changing, never exactly the same, just like a river. If it was exactly how it was in the beginning, something just wouldn’t feel as cool about it. Change is inevitable, and art is made up of mistakes.
Howl features a guest appearance by guitarist Warren Haynes on “Big Time.” What was it like working with such an experienced and influential musician?
It was awesome! He was such a cool guy. Just as laid-back and salt-of-the-earth as they come. I even cooked shish kabobs the night he was there with chicken on them, and I didn’t quite cook them all the way through. Warren said, “Who cooked this?” and I said, “Me,” nervously. He said, “Well done, thank you.” Ha, such a good guy! Much love to Warren!
You guys share a house outside of Nashville, and there are multiple references to Tennessee in your song titles and lyrics. What specifically drew the Howlin’ Brothers here?
What drew us to Nashville was the idea of immersing ourselves in the tradition and culture of Southern music and learning as much as we could. It’s so rich with old-time and bluegrass music around here. Also, performing on Lower Broadway has really opened our minds to Hank Williams Sr. and all sorts of other amazing country artist like Don Gibson, Johnny Horton and Doc Watson. We’ve learned so much from this city, and I can’t imagine a better place to live.
Some folks go to graduate school. We enlisted in the school of Lower Broadway in Nashville. I don’t think grad school would have taught us anything like we’ve learned in our seven years here in Music City.