For a lot of people, the twangy sound of bluegrass conjures cozy images of family, old-time religion, and downhome celebrations. But for Luke McGlathery, lead guitarist and singer-songwriter for the Fort Worth quartet Big City Folk, this jaunty staple of indigenous American music offers a lot more possibilities.
“A lot of times when I sit down to write a song, I don’t have the happiest of thoughts,” said McGlathery, 22. “I’ve written songs about death. I wrote a song about the end of the world. We can make dark stuff sound happy, I guess.”
Such bleak subject matter probably isn’t a surprise coming from a young composer whose biggest lyrical influences include self-destructive Fort Worth legend Townes Van Zandt and Eminem. Big City Folk, which also features banjo player Brian Briseno, mandolinist Daniel Crim, and bassist Martin Sargent, are all Fort Worth natives in their 20s. Though they’ve been playing together as BCF only for the past five months or so, their wired-up, virtuosic blend of folk, country, and bluegrass has started to gel into a punk-ish acoustic assault that defies easy categorization. Audience members who aren’t accustomed to hearing a lot of bands with banjo at local haunts like Lola’s Saloon and The Grotto have begun to take notice.
McGlathery isn’t a big talker and doesn’t like to toot his own horn, but he’s something of a musical prodigy with a natural ear. As a small child, he was able to pick out melodies and harmonies on piano and guitar before he’d had a lick of formal training. After high school, he started playing around town as a folky singer-songwriter solo act with a guitar and a harmonica. It wasn’t very exciting and more than a little lonesome, he admits. When he and the other members of Big City Folk began rehearsing — usually at someone’s house or at the Near Southside DIY venue The Where House, where McGlathery works — they immediately settled into long jam sessions. The traditional sounds of mandolin and banjo were merely starting points for a harder, more improvisatory approach. Call it bluegrass fusion, if you like. The biggest exponents of the genre right now are probably England’s Mumford & Sons, though lesser-known acts like metal-influenced bluegrassers Split Lip Rayfield and The Devil Makes Three are Big City Folk’s real heroes.
“There are so many subgenres [to contemporary bluegrass] that it’s hard to put a name to them,” McGlathery said. “We play really fast music with real instruments. I can see in people’s faces before we start playing –– they think we’re gonna play something they don’t want to hear. And then they’re up stomping and clapping their hands. It’s heaven for us.”
A Big City Folk show is a mix of original and existing material. The guys have developed a reputation for unlikely cover choices, including Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother”; a revved-up, hillbilly-ified version of Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay”; and, perhaps most surprisingly, Kid Cudi’s techno-rap hit “Pursuit of Happiness.” McGlathery said the band makes a point of trying to match the material to the audience, whether they’re performing for a group of senior citizens at a barbecue restaurant or a crowd of scenesters at The Cellar.
Right now, the quartet is concentrating on writing more original tunes, fiddling around in the studio, and playing more local gigs. For their Saturday show at The Cellar, they’ll have the stage to themselves all night long. Expect lots of long-form improv, McGlathery said, including on the microphone. He said that as the evening goes on and he drinks more beer, his penchant for free-style rap-influenced singing comes to the fore. But it’s all part of Big City Folk’s desire to forge and refine their own sound.
“It’s surprising to us how fast we’ve evolved,” he said. “I think we’re building towards a pure acoustic rock ’n’ roll sound with traditional bluegrass instruments. But we’ll see.”
Big City Folk
Tue at Fred’s Texas Café, 915 Currie St, FW. 817-332-0083. • Wed, Apr 10, w/Apollo Wild and American Jenny at Lola’s Saloon, 2736 W 6th St, FW. 817-877-0666.