If an official ambassador of Americana music existed, one would have to bestow the title on Jim Lauderdale. Since winning the 2002 Best Bluegrass Album Grammy for his collaboration with Ralph Stanley, Lost in the Lonesome Pines, Lauderdale (a native of Due West, S.C.) has served as host of the Americana Music Awards in Nashville each September. In 2012, he released two albums: a bluegrass collaboration with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter titled Carolina Moonrise and a collection of duets with legendary producer Buddy Miller (Robert Plant, Emmylou Harris), Buddy and Jim.
"Jim beats the drum so hard. Nobody rides harder for the brand than he does when it comes to Americana music," says Charleston Bluegrass Festival co-founder Perry Darby. "Having him here adds some legitimacy to what we're doing."
At Awendaw Green's second annual Charleston Bluegrass Festival this weekend, Lauderdale will team up with Asheville-based quartet Town Mountain, headlining a Friday night lineup that also includes Underhill Rose and the Corduroy Road. Saturday's all-day affair features sets from Packway Handle Band, the Bushels, the Empty Bottle String Band, and Blue Billy Grit, among others.
For the event's second year, Darby and Awendaw Green's Eddie White sought out a lineup without worrying about whether a group takes a "traditional" approach to bluegrass. In short, the bands at this festival aren't afraid to knock back a few beers and take a chance now and then.
"We want people to go, 'Holy smokes, I've never even heard of these guys and they just blew my socks off," Darby says. "Personally, I'm not interested in a concert that's so perfect and polished that it loses all the fun."
Although their chops are certainly without fault, that energy is the motivation behind bringing back Town Mountain, who also closed out last year's Friday night lineup. To make the performance stand out as truly special, the band reached out to Lauderdale, whom they'd collaborated with several years before.
"We know how to play a lot of his songs, just from being fans, so it's pretty cool to be able to play with the guy who wrote them," says Town Mountain mandolin player Phil Barker. "He knows bluegrass and he knows how to put on a good show."
The collaboration comes together just as Town Mountain begins to make a national name for themselves on the strength of their 2012 release, Leave the Bottle, which is currently enjoying airtime on Sirius XM radio. Since winning the 2005 RockyGrass competition in Colorado, the group has consistently toured with their core lineup of Barker, guitarist Robert Greer, and banjo player Jesse Langlais, now complemented by freshly recruited bassist Jake Hopping.
For their set, they'll include a mix of originals and Lauderdale's songs, as well as traditional tunes like "Fox on the Run" and "Little Cabin Home on the Hill."
"One of the cool things about bluegrass is that a lot of people and bands know the same songs," Barker says. "We don't rely on them by any stretch, but it's fun to play a song with a little bit of familiarity to it."
Town Mountain are long-time peers and friends of the Steep Canyon Rangers, another western North Carolina band who recently won a Grammy of their own and now tour with Steve Martin. (They'll be making a swing through town in May.) Barker calls them an inspiration, citing the renewed attention they've brought to bluegrass in the region and a hope that his group can follow their example.
"To be successful as a band is not easy," Barker claims. "You've got to make a commitment, go for it, and be patient."
For now, that means hitting the road hard. Fortunately, gigs like the Charleston Bluegrass Festival are exactly what the band enjoys most.
"Awendaw Green draws the type of clientele that we want to play for. They become our friends and fans," Barker says. "From a performer's perspective, it comes down to a nice setting and the way that the promoters treat you, and the scene there just makes us want to come back and play more."