It’s fashionable these days for bands to call themselves “eclectic,” or “genre-bending,” but for Denver, Colorado’s Oakhurst, those terms aren’t the result of some marketing strategy, or even of well-meant wishful thinking—they’re the simple, unvarnished truth. For proof, just look to the fact that Oakhurst has been nominated for their hometown’s independent weekly’s music awards in five different categories—or, even better, just listen to their brand new album, Barrel. Because when you get right down to it, it’s all about the music, and while the music Oakhurst makes on Barrel isn’t the kind that defies description, it’s definitely the kind that defies any one description. The result is a perfect snapshot of an upward-bound quintet that’s as broad-ranging as any you’re likely to hear all year.
Produced by Joe Pisapia (Guster, K. D. Lang) and recorded at Nashville’s Middle Tree Studios, Barrel takes a noticeable turn from the bluegrass leanings that characterized the band’s previous effort, Jump in the Get Down. On Barrel, largely due to the mid-production departure of the group’s banjo player and the arrival of guitarist Daniel Lawrence Walker – whose slide work gives the project a bluesier edge – the band finds it self with a whole new sound. That’s not to say that there isn’t continuity in the prominence of acoustic guitar, mandolin and even some banjo throughout. In fact, there’s even a taste of just-about-straightforward ‘grass in the tribute to one of the group’s heroes, John Hartford.
“It’s much more roots-rock Americana,” bassist Johnny Qualley told the Aspen Times while the group was still hard at work on the album, and that’s right as far as it goes, but in the end, Barrel really does elude easy description; just when you think that you’ve got it pegged with the good-time, good-natured feel of the title track, your expectations are confounded by the electrified sonorities and heartfelt yearning of “Satellites,” and then by the country flavor of “Out West,” written with the help of the Infamous Stringdusters’ Jeremy Garrett. There’s the easy R & B sway of “I’ll Be All Right,” the lilt of “Promises,” the moody cosmic American music atmospherics of “Surrender” and “Please,” which seamlessly blend a dozen different influences. Then there is the heartfelt appeal of “Time To Change” and even a raucous hoedown on “Mission,” which brings the banjo back for one more turn.
What’s more, there are also new accents, new rhythms, like in the loose, easy-going lope of songs like “Hallelu.” There are also new textures, and a new gravity, too, in the lyrics; these are boys who know how to settle back and have a good time, but they’re also men who know there’s more to life than that. Just within the three songs on the Barrel EP, there is prevailing optimism in the face of adversity, the importance of a father’s touch and awe for life itself. Through these tunes the writers seem to be acutely aware that there are lessons and opportunity all around them and these songs inspire us to remember the simple things and not get wrapped up in or trapped by the times, locations or circumstances we live in. They unpretentiously encourage us to simply enjoy life and all it brings.
Yet there’s a logic—even a kind of inevitability—to Barrel’s quicksilver shifts, reflecting the twists and turns of a collective career that’s now entering its second decade. Qualley and lead singer/guitarist A. P. Hill are the lone holdovers from the founding lineup, with drummer Chris Budin, mandolin/guitar man Max Paley joining more recently and Walker the freshest recruit—but whether old or new, each member is an essential contributor. The result is an ensemble that’s earned enough acclaim—and enough fans—to keep them on the road year-round. Indeed, whether tearing it up around Denver, traveling across the country or crossing the oceans, Oakhurst have been tapped to appear with a dizzying variety of fellow artists, ranging from jam-grass favorites like Yonder Mountain String Band and Leftover Salmon to Americana staples like the Avett Brothers and John Hiatt to country icons such as Emmylou Harris and Lyle Lovett to flat-out rockers like Lynyrd Skynyrd. Heck, Zac Brown and a couple band mates sat in and played funk songs with Oakhurst one year at Telluride Bluegrass. How many genres does that cover? Wherever they have done their thing, they have always gotten audiences up on their feet with their infectious energy.
So when you hear Oakhurst—and their latest album—described as “eclectic,” resist the temptation to doubt. Some artists talk the talk, but when it comes to music that knows no boundaries and no limits and yet remains deeply rooted in the American vernacular, Oakhurst is one tight group that knows how to walk the walk.