Kathleen Parks grew up learning Irish fiddle in her Irish family, and her father played jazz trumpet. At the Berklee College of Music she heard bluegrass for the first time.
“It sounds like Irish but twangier,” she said, “and I want to shake my hips.”
She felt an energy in its free-shifting improvisation — like Irish music and jazz combined.
In the expanding Boston bluegrass scene, she fiddles and sings in the band Twisted Pine with Dan Bui on mandolin, Ricky Mier on banjo, Rachel Sumner on guitar and vocals and Chris Sartori on bass.
The community of up-and-coming musicians in Boston is growing and drawing in all the cultures of the world, Bui said, and Sartori agreed: “The next generation of students bring a virtuosity to bluegrass.”
From this community, Twisted Pine has emerged to catch national and international attention. They have recently performed at festivals from Rockygrass in Colorado to Celtic Connections in Glasgow, UK, received a grant to record their debut full-length album in Nashville and been nominated for the International Bluegrass Association’s momentum award. And from Sept. 18 to 20 they returned to Mass MoCA’s FreshGrass Festival in North Adams, Mass., where they won the band competition last year.
They have stepped into a bluegrass community across New England and beyond, and they are looking forward to FreshGrass.
“It’s the capstone of the summer,” Bui said. “We’re excited to be there.”
Bui, Mier, Parks and Sumner met through Berklee, and Sartori met Mier at a music jam. At parties and informal gigs the group solidified in their pleasure at playing together.
“For me that’s what fuels the music,” Mier said, “the spontaneous interaction with other players.”
Sumner waved across the street to the Cantab Lounge, the Cambridge bluegrass hub, where Twisted Pine has evolved from an informal jam into a melded group. They landed a regular gig there once a month, she said. They worked out new material and arrangements and drew a regular crowd.
“It gave us an excuse to get together, call out tunes and spice it up,” she said. “A lot of bands have gotten their start there.”
“That’s where it started,” Mier agreed, in low-key, informal gigs where they could experiment. “The best place a band can be founded is in fun.”
They have shaped their sound out of high-energy standards and original tunes. Sumner and Parks both write original tunes, and they have all worked out arrangements.
“People sometimes have a strict definition [of bluegrass] — it must be Scruggs-style banjo,” Sumner said. “We’re a little loose; we come from different backgrounds.”
Mier played slap bass in jam bands, he said, and picked up banjo after he and Bui became roommates. Sartori played jazz and funk and R&B fusion before he met them.
“I was classically trained on flute,” Sumner said. “I didn’t know chords.”
The fluid flexibility of bluegrass moved her.
“It was new for me,” she said, “because classical orchestras and ensembles … are stiff. I was drawn to this because I was starved for it in the classical world.”
So she picked up the guitar and began writing her own songs.
Parks said her songs often have a more rock feel, influenced by Paul McCartney and Elliott Smith. Sumner calls hers “story songs,” often drawing on her life. One they will perform at FreshGrass recalls a Christmas Eve when her family were evicted from their home.
“It’s one of the worst things that’s happened,” she said, “and I figured out how to channel it [into music]. I like finding beauty in horrible things.”
I wrote this story for Take Magazine — my thanks to editor Lauren Clark and web editor Janet Reynolds.