For nearly 15 years, The Devil Makes Three has blended Bluegrass, Folk, Country, Blues, Rockabilly and whatever else bubbles to the surface and applied them liberally to its songwriting ethic. The resulting incendiary cross-pollination of old-time tradition and contemporary invention has been translated by the trio — guitarist Pete Bernhard, upright bassist Lucia Turino and guitarist/tenor banjoist Cooper McBean — into its estimable catalog of studio and live recordings.
For the band’s fifth studio album, they envisioned a thematic exploration of the tension between damnation and redemption, evil and good, carnality and spirituality. They chose songs that addressed those issues, rearranged them for their oeuvre and recorded them live for the beatific and brutal Redemption & Ruin. From Bernhard’s perspective, the concept didn’t require much research.
“In a way, it’s always been our theme,” says Bernhard. “We’re like the world’s worst wedding band. We don’t do a lot of love songs. We do songs in the Country/Blues tradition of things going wrong or that feeling of not being able to do the right thing, no matter how hard you try. The other thing is all the artists that inspired us to be the band we are, this is our chance to give a nod to them.”
Those artists included Hank Williams, who recorded Gospel music as Luke the Drifter, as well as Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, who occasionally exhibited their religious upbringings without resorting to surreptitious nom de plumes.
“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do one side of the vinyl that’s all Gospel songs and the other side is all drinking, drugs and heartbreak songs?’ ” Bernhard says. “(Those earlier artists) chose to do it separately, then do their own thing, which was more ‘outlaw/fuck you’ songwriting.”
The band’s proposed physical album structure also fueled the concept of Redemption & Ruin. The two-sided 12-inch vinyl format (which includes an accompanying download code) naturally supported the saint/sinner song division, but problems arose when the group concocted a cool but unworkable execution.
“Originally, we wanted one side of the album to be white and the other side to be black,” Bernhard says with a laugh. “We found out that is impossible.”
For the release, The Devil Makes Three shunned original material in favor of existing work in the public domain and by artists the members love, both famous and obscure, which then went through the band’s transformative process.
“We took songs from public domain that don’t really belong to anybody and kind of rewrote them,” Bernhard says. “All the songs we kind of rewrote, to be honest, but some are from more modern artists. We realized that doing a concept record is significantly more difficult than we assumed.”
As it turned out, a bellwether song for both the hallelujah and hell-bound sides helped define the overall album concept and guided both set of songs.
“On the ‘Redemption’ side, (‘'I Am the Man, Thomas'), the Ralph Stanley song, really hit me the hardest,” Bernhard says. “It’s obviously the story of Jesus’ life in pretty brutal detail. It’s also the most haunting. Ralph Stanley is a wizard when it comes to writing a song that seems almost like it’s ancient.
“On the ‘Ruin’ side, ‘Drunken Hearted Man’ was definitely up there for me. There’s so many good songs on that side, man. We really are drawn to songs of hopelessness, for whatever reason. It’s funny to sing other people’s songs as well. It’s like, ‘I don’t know if I’ve ever actually felt this bad.’ Some of them, Townes Van Zandt especially, are pretty dark. It’s interesting to sing those tunes and think, ‘I’m really hoping the guy who wrote this didn’t actually feel that bad, but he probably did.’ Townes was close to that. He was a pretty amazing songwriter.”
For Redemption & Ruin’s sessions, The Devil Makes Three took a page from their last album, 2013’s I’m a Stranger Here, largely playing everything live in the studio. It definitely heightened the finished product’s authenticity.
“We learned the best way to record our band is the Sun Records approach; everybody gets in a room and we play,” Bernhard says. “We don’t overdub, except for harmony vocals and occasionally a solo, but what you hear when you listen to our record is all of us playing live.”
The other departure on Redemption & Ruin was the band’s incredible guest list. Jerry Douglas, Tim O’Brien, Emmylou Harris, Chance McCoy from Old Crow Medicine Show and many others provide brilliant cameos, which the band accommodates with loose arrangements.
“We left these songs fairly open-ended and didn’t set anything in stone in case anybody had good ideas,” Bernhard says. “We went into the studio rehearsed, but we basically said (to the special guests), ‘How would you change the song to fit your part, or would you write a new part?’ We arranged the song with them, then just hit the record button. I think it allowed them enough space to stretch out and do something they enjoyed doing.”
Bernhard credits producer David Ferguson with many of the guest appearances, thanks to his connections through his Butcher Shoppe studio in Nashville and his voluminous Rolodex.
“We put it in a lot of people’s ears — ‘Hey, if we ever make this record, would you want to do it?’ And everybody said, ‘Sure!,’ ” Bernhard says. “It just happened they were all in Nashville at the same time, which is one of the great things about Nashville.’ ”
With Redemption & Ruin completed, The Devil Makes Three is already planning its next projects. Bernhard is deep into his third solo album, and since The Devil Makes Three didn’t create original material for the new album, the musicians have already begun work on the follow-up.
“I’ve got seven songs that we’re going to road test on this next tour,” Bernhard says. “We won’t do all seven every night, but we’re going to start working those into the set and see how they go. I have probably seven more, and when I finish those, I’d say we’ll be ready. I would love it if we were in the studio next year recording new Devil Makes Three stuff.”
THE DEVIL MAKES THREE performs Wednesday at the 20th Century Theater. Tickets/more info: the20thcenturytheatre.com.