Interview: Furnace Mountain, Americana band
Furnace Mountain, who tour Scotland next week, have built a loyal following with their Americana and warm, open personalities. By Simon Stephenson
I FIRST met Furnace Mountain on an island in North Carolina 14 years ago. I was a short-order cook on a summer visa and they were honeymooning as the house band at a ten-cent shrimp bar. Happy-hour beers were a dollar, but it was always the music that made you feel light-headed.
The band was a four-piece in those days too: newlyweds Morgan and David, a banjo player called Fred and a labrador named Wilma, who sat in the front row for each performance. When the band finished playing we would walk the unlit highway out to the beach, and many mornings we would still be going when The Pelican reopened for breakfast. Banjo Fred moved south and Wilma has since passed on to the great ten-cent shrimp bar in the sky, but Furnace Mountain’s definitive incarnation tour Scotland next week.
Some days the chalkboard outside The Pelican would say that Furnace Mountain’s music was “Appalachian”, and some days it would say “Roots” or “Old-Time” and sometimes the band would simply shrug and write only that their music was “American”. It would have been uncharacteristically immodest of the band to chalk up that theirs was a music of and for the ages, but that is what it is.
Furnace Mountain play 300-year-old fiddle tunes learned deep in the Virginia hills, murder ballads written before the blood had even dried, and original compositions that already sound permanent as the mountains from which they are drawn. There are songs of true love and of corn liquor and there are even more songs of the heartbreaks and hangovers that follow. It is a music that has been passed down through bloodlines and in the finger-worn grooves of rosewood fretboards. It is the song of the subsistence farmer and the factory girl, and it wakens something deep inside almost everybody who hears it.
How could it not, with this pedigree and all these talents? Danny Knicely is a fourth-generation mountain musician and a Telluride mandolin champion. Stand-up bass player Aimee Curl sings with the voice of the Knoxville girl herself. David “Fiddlin’ Dave” VanDeventer, himself a Purcell on his mother’s side, learned his incredible craft from the old-timers around his hometown of Purcellville. And if you think a bouzouki sounds like a powerful weapon, just wait until you hear Morgan Morrison play hers and sing her sweet melody line atop it.
In the years since I first knew them, Furnace Mountain have played stadiums in China, sold out a barnstorming show at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections and created their own Watermelon Park Festival on the banks of the Shenandoah River. The half-dozen Scottish shows they will play over the next week nevertheless seem to me an incredible stroke of national good fortune, for I can recall a time when even simply hearing this music was an exquisite challenge.
At the end of our first summer I spent a final week soaking in the sounds of fiddles and mandolins and banjos at their cabin in the Virginia hills. On the day that I left America, Morgan gave me a cassette to further ease my transition home. On one side was a soundboard recording from a Furnace Mountain show and on the other were recordings of David and her brother making prank phone calls.
Back home I played both sides of the cassette until it broke. I managed to repair it twice but by the third time it snapped the tape had begun to disintegrate. Furnace Mountain have this month released their fifth album, but in those days they were yet to officially record anything, and the folk pubs of Glasgow were unable to provide the sound I yearned for.
Over and again, I returned to Virginia. Each time I would arrive to find them already waiting: the blue station wagon parked outside the Greyhound bus station or the airport, Morgan and David sitting upfront and Wilma hanging her head out of the rear window. They moved house a lot in those days, but certain things were inviolable: strong coffee in the morning, a porch to sit on, and friends stopping by to play music on it each afternoon. I learned a few banjo chords and sometimes sat in on guitar, and nobody seemed to mind that I often had to play in half time just to keep up.
Those Virginia days run into one another now like songs in a late-night goodtime set. There were long drives to shows, winding country roads that took us up past green fields of palominos and down through shady groves. There were truck stops and diners in the dark and the dawn. Sometimes we got pulled over by state troopers and sometimes we ran out of money and gas. One night Morgan got us all a job painting a rich lawyer’s office in DC and for days afterwards we lived like kings. On sunny Sundays we floated down the brown Shenandoah, Wilma leading the way in her own inflatable rubber ring.
One quiet evening, house-sitting their friends’ cabin outside of Charlottesville, something else happened. I was 21 or maybe 22 by then. I wanted more than anything to be a writer but was so shy about it I could hardly even say the word out loud. A few stories I had written about our first summer had won an obscure student prize, but all I had really done was to set down a handful of the remarkable things that had happened, and it had felt more than a little like cheating.
On this particular night we were sitting around after dinner and Morgan asked me if I could read her something from my journal. Nobody had ever asked me to read anything aloud before, and I was surprised to find that I could do it, more so that Morgan seemed to like what she heard. She and David were the only artists I knew then, and it seemed to me that if they could find merit in something I wrote it might be worth carrying on working at it after all.
Nowadays, I often listen to Furnace Mountain when I write, and I still hear notes and even lyrics that I had not known were there. I have a couple of live tracks too, and each time I hear David start to introduce a song and instead somehow finish up inviting the entire crowd to come over to his house and drink a beer I find myself laughing out loud. On the recording you can hear Morgan laugh too, and then the band launch into another blistering reel. And in perhaps those 30 seconds of sound are contained so much of what I love both about my old friends and their even older music.
Furnace Mountain make the music of the place they come from. It is the music of the nightbirds and the moonshine jar, of the dogwood blossom and the railroad, of the old black dress and the haunted graveyard. But it is the music, too, of love and loss and memory and yearning, and it is therefore not only the music of the place they come from, but the music of the place we all come from. These songs touch me anew each time I hear them, and if you can make it out to a show they will touch something in you too. I will wager all the dollar beer you can drink on that.
• Furnace Mountain’s Scottish tour starts on 1 June at the Adam Smith Hall, Kirkcaldy, and goes on to Brookfield, Inverness, Edinburgh and Irvine. furnacemountain.com. Simon Stephenson’s book Let Not the Waves of the Sea has been shortlisted in the First Book Category of the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book Awards. The winner will be announced at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival.
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