"Monkey Wrench Gang" from the album Take Me Home
The "fiery mountain music" of Asheville, N.C.'s Biscuit Burners has changed a bit since they first made their name in Charleston a few years back, playing several packed shows at the old West Ashley Bait & Tackle. They've picked up a fiddle player and new female vocalist in Odessa Jorgensen, and founding member Shannon Whitworth has embarked on her own solo career. Former mandolin player Jon Stickley also moved on, as well as banjo-picker Wes Corbett, who joined the Burners on tour for much of 2007. And bassist Mary Lucey and dobro-player Billy Cardine are now the proud parents of eight-month-old William Bodie.
By the sound of their brand new release Take Me Home, however, the quartet of Lucey, Cardine, Jorgensen, and guitarist Dan Bletz is as strong as ever. Where they lost a significant number of their songs with Whitworth's departure, Jorgensen has stepped in as a more-than -capable lyricist. In "Drank Up All the Whiskey," she sings: "Cause there's horses in the pasture that ain't been fed/and the cows are standin' hungry in the milkin' shed/Put my supper on the table there's work to tend/cause heaven took your mama, left you instead/I drank up all the whiskey and I quit that smoke/And I ain't stopped a hurtin' since you've been born."
It's the type of song that reads like a heartbroken ballad, but with the dual harmonies of Lucey and Jorgensen intermingling, it's a swinging and swaying bluegrass number.
"I met Odessa at the International Bluegrass Music Awards in Nashville a few years ago, and we ended up playing all night," says Lucey. "We had an instant connection and knew she was a good match."
Lucey says the transition was an easy one. "Being a musician, you end up having favorite songs that you play, and it's an honor when your fans and friends know them throughout the country," she says. "At the same time, it's nice if you're playing as many shows as we do to change the repertoire to keep it fresh. It was time that we learned a bunch of new songs."
In their travels, the Burners have played countless idyllic venues, including being one of the only bands (if not the only) to play on the shore of Mono Lake in California, the country's oldest lake. Playing in the Sierra Nevada is always a homecoming to Lucey, who once worked for the California Department of Fish and Game in the high country.
"Billy [Cardine] would hike up to 13,000 feet with his dobro, flexible solar panel, and his Macbook and hang mics from trees and record up there, while I went off to work," says Lucey.
That sort of full-emersion songwriting is common for the group. In late 2005, Lucey and Cardine traveled to India, where they lived in Calcutta and studied the Bengali music tradition. Take Me Home includes a folk song they learned there, "Sujan Re," which Lucey supplemented with English lyrics about the life and love of a sailor. Jorgensen and Lucey share vocal duties throughout the Bengali lyrics, while Cardine plays the haunting 22-string Chaturangi his teacher crafted for him.
"I hate to use the word fusion — we're bridging culture gaps through music," says Lucey. "There's a lot more in common between musical styles than we think. We're incorporating the Bengali sound into quite a few of our songs now."
As the Biscuit Burners continue to tread new musical ground, they also remain highly revered in the bluegrass world. Cardine has played in Carnegie Hall with Edgar Meyer, Jerry Douglas, and Béla Fleck, and mandolin phenom Josh Pinkham lends his hand to the track "Country Girl" on the new album.
Despite their success, their shows still feel like a gathering of friends on the back porch, and the fiery mountain keeps burning brighter.