“We’re going to write what we like, and if people call it bluegrass, that’s great,” says mandolinist Peter Sharpe of genre-fluid acoustic quintet the Railsplitters. “But if they want to call it something else, that’s fine too.”
Sharpe, 44, and his fiancée, vocalist and guitarist Lauren Stovall, 32, have challenged stylistic constraints since the Boulder band played its first gig for a handful of listeners at a LoDo watering hole in January 2012.
“We’re very eclectic,” says Sharpe. “We all listen to a lot of different stuff, and it filters its way into our sound. It’s non-conformist music. We play a handful of trad tunes when we play live, but we mostly play what we write.”
A glance at the band’s influences confirms its penchant for diversity. Members of the group cite inspirations that include the computer-driven mishmash of the Gorillaz as well as forward-thinking neo-bluegrass string acts such as Joy Kills Sorrow, Punch Brothers and Crooked Still.
Stovall, a native of Jackson, Mississippi, who retains a soft Southern twang and lives in a tiny house in Boulder, says the group’s members, who all studied music in college, are unabashedly on the progressive side of bluegrass, taking in influences as far afield as samba, pop and hip-hop. The Railsplitters’ latest effort, Jump In, which was released on November 10, bears a title that aptly reflects the bandmates’ defiant artistic outlook.
“The theme of the album is to take chances,” says Sharpe, who was born in Brazil and made his way to Colorado by way of Connecticut. “We’re just saying ‘What the hell’ and going for it. There’s nothing on our new release that really says it’s bluegrass. Like a lot of groups, we started with a traditional sound, playing old-time covers and writing a bunch of bluegrass-influenced songs. But over time, even though our instrumentation has stayed the same, our writing has evolved to take in a far wider range of material. We definitely like playing acoustic, and we find it a rewarding challenge to incorporate more unlikely stuff using a traditional five-piece lineup.”
The group, which tours internationally and performs upwards of 100 times annually with acts including Yonder Mountain String Band, took first place in the band competition at RockyGrass in Lyons in 2013 and has played at other major roots-music gatherings including the Grey Fox Music Festival in Oak Hill, New York, and DelFest in Cumberland, Maryland. Sharpe and Stovall say the band intends to keep up its steady gigging pace and to continue to challenge all kinds of norms.
“We’ve been touring full-time for three years now,” says Sharpe. “We love festivals, but we also like more intimate settings like house concerts. The best is playing for people who are really listening and who are intently focused on the performance. We’re also trying to tie some themes into what’s going on politically these days. On our new album, there’s a tune called ‘Something Sweet’ that is a topical song about unwanted advances.”
The band had some personnel changes early on, but it now comprises Sharpe and Stovall; bassist Jean-Luc Davis, a Denver native and jazz devotee; Swallow Hill music instructor and fiddler Joe D’Esposito, originally from Long Island; and banjoist Dusty Rider, who hails from upstate New York. In addition to wrestling with old-school genre boundaries, the group has also confronted gender issues.
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“We started out with three women and two men,” says Stovall, who moved to Colorado in 2005, when she was nineteen. “Our original fiddler left to attend nursing school. Joe replaced her. And our original bassist, Leslie, moved to China. Now I’m the only woman in the band, and we’ve actually taken some flak for that. But we don’t discriminate when we hire. A good player is a good player. Bluegrass is a very white genre, and it’s traditionally male-dominated, which is one thing a lot of women deal with. It’s been really cool over the past few years with the movement of women in the genre and all-female groups like Della Mae. More women are getting involved and playing all kinds of instruments, too, not just singing and playing guitar. Sierra Hull on the mandolin is a big inspiration. We’ve played a couple of shows with her recently. And for the first time at the IBMA [International Bluegrass Music Association], a couple women won some pretty significant awards. Molly Tuttle got Guitar Player of the Year. She was the first woman to get that award.”
Sharpe agrees with his fiancée’s overall assessment of the genre and its evolution.
“Bluegrass has been a bit of an old boys’ club, but it’s changing and trying to keep up with the times,” he says. “That’s refreshing.”
For more on the band, go to therailsplitters.com.