Jim Krewson and Jennie Benford are unlikely revolutionaries. They are mild mannered, good humored and easygoing folks, not wild-eyed dogmatists bent on the overthrow of tradition and the status quo. And yet some might see Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops in that more extreme role with the release of their latest and, some might say, revolutionary new Bluegrass album, Rivers Roll On By. Although the group uses such decidedly non-Bluegrass elements as electricity, drums and something called a Banjocaster, Krewson and Benford have already proven their loyalty to Bluegrass tradition with their initial string of four independently released albums. As Krewson notes, the Pinetops' early ethic was almost militant in its pursuit of pure Bluegrass forms.
"When we started in the late '90s, there weren't that many younger bands playing traditional Bluegrass," he says from the band's tour stop in Philadelphia. "It was a rare thing, doing the first generation, straight-up stuff, so we just wanted to play the music we wanted to hear. People seemed to be ignoring all the people that we loved like Red Allen, Jimmy Martin and Bill Monroe. There is actually this Bluegrass school in Johnson City and we knew some people who went to it and they said they were teaching the new, hot Nashville pickers and not teaching Jimmy Martin and Bill Monroe, which was crazy to us, because that's the music that turned us on and what we considered real Bluegrass. And we were Nazis about it when we first started.
We were really bad."
When the Pinetops began work on Rivers Roll On By, the band had just signed to Bloodshot, Chicago's noted insurgent Country label, but they had already decided that their next album would be something of a departure from their previous catalog. With a handful of new songs that seemed to lend themselves to a new mindset, the Pinetops began hammering their classic Bluegrass style into a new sonic configuration.
"I think we just allowed ourselves more freedom to arrange the songs according to the song, and not trying to make them fit into Bluegrass tradition," says Benford. "We recorded this album at my house in North Carolina and I had all these different instruments around. And we'd been writing more unusual kinds of songs, too, and that was what we had available for the album. So we let the songs dictate the arrangements."
One of the more interesting instruments featured on Rivers Roll On By is the aforementioned Banjocaster, an electrified quasi-banjo owned by the Pinetops' Brad Hutchison. Its unique design allows it to serve a number of varied purposes on the album.
"It's this electric banjo that Brad found at a flea market in North Carolina," says Benford. "It's someone's home project that they built. 'Banjocaster' is a little bit misleading because it's set up more like a Telecaster. It's an electric guitar with a banjo neck, but you can't really play 'Foggy Mountain Breakdown' on it. So we end up using it for a lap steel or an electric guitar kind of sound, with long, bendy notes."
In casting off any preconceived notions about what kind of Bluegrass they should be making, the Pinetops felt free to experiment with sounds and concepts within the conventional genre structure they had already established for themselves. By blending their innate sense of Bluegrass heritage with an intuitive feel for how to update that sound without dismantling its integrity, Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops were able to craft an album that adheres to Bluegrass scripture as much as it departs from it.
"If you're true to yourself and what you think sounds good, it's just going to happen organically," says Krewson. "We kind of wanted to sound traditional. It was a little self-conscious in the beginning when we wrote the songs, because we wanted them to fit into a certain framework and I think they still do. Our minds are just still wired that way, to a certain degree. We're just trying to expand our universe a little bit."
That expansion could certainly come with a price for Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops, especially in the insular world of Bluegrass where deeply devoted fans can be soured by even the slightest deviation from what is perceived to be the genre's standards. But given the fact that the band has already shown their love and reverence for the history of Bluegrass, neither Krewson nor Benford feels that there is anything on Rivers Roll On By that should cause palpitations among the genre's more rigid defenders.
"We're probably making a bigger deal about it than it actually is," says Krewson. "Everybody that hears it says, 'Oh, it's good Bluegrass,' but we were so self-conscious about what people were going to think about it. People seem to like it and I don't think we're offending anyone."
"I think finally we got to point where it comes down to doing what we want," says Benford with a laugh. "With that (conservative) crowd, none of them are going to be surprised that we do an album with electric stuff. I'm always surprised when it seems like a big deal and it's not a big deal. Nobody's going to be very upset. I think people who are really fans of ours are not going to be surprised and are going to like anything we do."
JIM AND JENNIE AND THE PINETOPS perform Saturday at Jack Quinn's with Ma Crow's Rhythm & Bluegrass Revue.