We dig into the band’s new tune, “Can’t Win ’Em All,” and the Western North Carolina music scene with bassist Zach Smith.
You might know Town Mountain from their bluegrass-y version of the Springsteen classic “I’m on Fire” — it could be that you helped them rack up more than 8 million-plus Spotify streams of it. But if that’s all you know about this band, you need a roots-music tune-up. Good timing, because these Asheville, North Carolina-based pickers have some new music out and more coming soon.
Town Mountain takes its name from a road that literally goes from town to mountain, from downtown Asheville winding up into the mountains of Western North Carolina. To the band the name “just made sense because it gave us a tie to the community we love.”
The band is comprised of Jesse Langlais (banjo, vocals), Phil Barker (mandolin, vocals), Robert Greer (guitar, vocals), Bobby Britt (fiddle), and Zach Smith (bass). Since releasing their debut album, Original Bluegrass and Roots Country, in 2007, Town Mountain have made a name for themselves in bluegrass, country, and Americana.
They've toured with a who's who of roots musicians — including Ralph Stanley and His Clinch Mountain Boys, the Del McCoury Band, Greensky Bluegrass, and Yonder Mountain String Band — and performed at the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman Auditorium, and Red Rocks, where they debuted last year with Tyler Childers and Robert Earl Keen.
We talked with bassist Zach Smith about the band’s new single, “Can’t Win ‘Em All,” and got his picks for a Feel Good Playlist.
Cowboys & Indians: Introduce us to Town Mountain.
Zach Smith: We are based out of Asheville, North Carolina and have been together now for about 15 years or so. I’m actually the newest member and have been with them for a little over three years, but I was a fan long before that.
The band uses a traditional bluegrass instrumentation with Robert Greer on guitar, Jesse Langlais on banjo, Phil Barker on mandolin, Bobby Britt on fiddle, and myself on upright bass, but our sound goes far beyond the rigid confines of the bluegrass genre. I think that is why I was a fan to begin with: because their sound was unlike any other bluegrass band I was hearing at the time. Phil, Jesse, and Robert are all songwriters with a wide span of musical tastes and influences, and I think it translates to the music Town Mountain creates. Not strictly bluegrass, not country, not singer-songwriter, not folk, just feel-good fun!
C&I: Tell us about the music scene in Asheville and your own music background.
Smith: With Asheville’s incredible music scene, it’s no wonder the guys came together there back in the day. When I moved there for this gig there were bluegrass jams five nights a week, and I went to all of them! I grew up about two hours from Asheville in Boone, North Carolina, and was raised on bluegrass/old-time music. Most of my family played, especially my dad, who is a great three-finger banjo player and Doc-style guitar player, but I didn’t show much interest in music until high school, when I discovered the upright bass in the orchestra. Fortunately for me, my parents had always taken me to Merlefest, like 20-odd times in my 25 years on this earth, and I had a great appreciation for acoustic music. So I took off with the bass and have just followed where it’s taken me! I actually met Town Mountain when a band I had been playing with opened for them in Winston-Salem. I remember I specifically made business cards for myself prior to the show and probably gave the band 100. I can’t say it didn’t work because I got the call to audition a year and a half later, quit college, and moved to Asheville to travel around with these guys!
C&I: How did the new tune, “Can’t Win Em All,” come together?
Smith: “Can’t Win ‘Em All” is an incredible Phil Barker tune that was brought to the table around this time last year and got us all pumped immediately when we heard it. We thought it could easily have been some underground George Jones song or something that we had never heard before (which is near-impossible [because] we know all his material!). When a song gets brought to the table, we play it over and over again, tweaking little things and arranging what breaks will go where and stuff like that.
Fast-forward to September 2019. We were out in Colorado and had a day off between shows, so we went up and spent the day recording at our friend Aaron Youngberg’s studio, Swingfingers, in Fort Collins. It was a great setup. We had just played our Red Rocks debut two days before, opening for our buddy Tyler Childers, so we were flying high. The studio was warm and intimate with a million-dollar view of the Horsetooth Reservoir right outside. “Can’t Win Em All” is definitely one of the most sparse, open tunes Town Mountain has ever recorded, and I can’t say there weren’t moments of feeling quite “exposed” in the studio. But we knew that to do the song right, putting all focus on the gut-wrenching lyrics Phil wrote, we had to start out sparse and build as the song went on. So we started the song with just Robert and his guitar, then Phil with harmony, then everyone coming in softly on the second verse, and slowly building with each verse and chorus until a big crescendo just before the last chorus.
Fast-forward again to February 2020. We knew we wanted to release “Can’t Win Em All” as a single sometime before our next full album, and we knew the only guy who could add the musical flavor we were searching for was our friend Joel Savoy down in Eunice, Louisiana. Joel is a mainstay in the Cajun music scene. He’s a Grammy Award-winning recording engineer and record producer, a founding member of the legendary group the Red Stick Ramblers, and owner of Valcour Records. Joel turned the song up to 11 and made the single sound as good as the song deserved, adding drums, pedal steel, and a few other little Louisiana magic touches.
C&I: What’s next for Town Mountain?
Smith: We are looking to get into the studio as early as October to record our seventh studio album. I can’t say too much, but I will say that the songwriting on this new record is truly something to behold. Being the new guy over the past three years I have gotten to see the unique songwriting I always loved from Town Mountain get transformed from paper to instrument to recording. These guys have such a wide array of musical influences, and it shows in their songwriting. This next album will be the second one I have had the pleasure of recording, and I’m excited to see what an impact it will make.
Zach Smith’s Feel Good Playlist
“Out in the Country” — The Meters
“Queen Bee” — Taj Mahal
“Just Playin’ Possum” — Alan Jackson
“Come on Home” — Lijadu Sisters
“Wild Oats” — Ben Bullington
“Never Been to Spain” — Waylon Jennings
“1612” — Vulfpeck
“Come Get to This” — Marvin Gaye
“Boogie Man” — Speedy West
“You Can Get It If You Really Want” — Jimmy Cliff
“Before That Final Bell” — Western Centuries
Photography: Images courtesy Rob Laughter, Sandlin Gaither