Down the Mountain
By Maggie Hendrix Foster
Outside, rain is falling heavy on the blisteringly hot streets and, inside, Down The Mountain is playing a bluegrass-heavy rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.” This night can only be described as “steamy." It’s their second of three shows IN THREE DAYS; THIS ONE at 4 Oaks IS the official release party for their self-titled EP. Sunday afternoon, after a two-hour set at Muddy Creek Music Hall in Bethania, the guys are sweaty, exhausted, elated, and ready to talk Down the Mountain.
Mocksville, North Carolina is home to the trio. Justin Thompson’s Martin guitar drives most of the sound, with Kenny Orsillo’s strong banjo licks rounding out the melody of Down the Mountain. Former metal drummer Nathan Brown plays a Bonham Cajon drum emblazoned with North Carolina’s state flag. The compact nature of the Cajon suits the band’s desire to travel light, but future larger venues will feature a live kit.
Maggie Hendrix Foster: But in the music video for Creek Don’t Rise, you do use a kit for that one?
Nathan Brown: The audio for that video was recorded in Justin’s house on a Roland TD 6 drum kit, but I’m playing the drum box in the video.
Justin Thompson: But the one we recorded on our demo does have Cajon and drums. They alternate.
Kenny Orsillo: We mixed them both in there.
MHF: That’s cool! Which one is your preference?
NB: Right now, it’s going to be the kit because my hands are killing me! I like playing the Cajon; it’s more of an intimate setting and we can kind of get in there. But, with the kit, I have 7 different instruments I can make where I’m limited to 2 or 3 sounds on the box. I wouldn’t want to call it boring, but it’s a lot more entertaining to play the kit. I’d prefer to play a live kit, but I sure as heck don’t want to haul it around.
Down the Mountain describes themselves as an Americana band, more specifically folk rock with blues undertones. Although the band agrees they follow Justin’s classic rock sound, the influences of other American storytellers are clear in their work.
MHF: You guys talked today about how big an influence The Avett Brothers were on your sound. What are some of the other big influences you draw from?
NB: They introduced me to the Willie Watson and things like that. I come from a very diverse background. I was a metal drummer forever. Kind of getting into it, I’m a huge Todd Snider fan. Jason Isbell as a songwriter. People like that. Jamming with these guys and asking “Who wrote this song?” Then going and looking it up and seeing that catalog of the Willie Watson stuff or the Tyler Childers stuff. That was a big one for me. They turned me on to that. I can’t put it down now.
KO: Old Crow Medicine Show, Willie Watson, The Wood Brothers, Charlie Crockett has actually been at the forefront right now. Uh, Man, I can go on and on if you really want me to-all day long. Ready for this? You ready? Jason Isbell, Langhorne Slim, Willie Watson, Houndmouth, Trampled by Turtles, Mandolin Orange, Mipso, The Devil Makes Three, Shovels and Rope, Sturgill Simpson, John Prine, Rayland Baxter, Justin Townes Earle has a really big influence. You can tell me when to stop, but especially the Avetts. That’s why I play the banjo today, because they made it awesome.
JT: I’ve kind of burned myself out on a lot of their tunes, but that’s what got me into it personally.
KO: We’ve played them for 10 years straight.
MHF: You guys played some B-sides; it’s been a really long time since I’ve heard “All Fall Down,” even at an Avett Brothers show. I feel like that one is deep in the vault now.
JT: We’d prefer those tunes; that’s kind of our style – the B-sides, I’d say. I think that’s what we do the best.
MHF: That’s the thing I love about covers; with you guys being a relatively new band, you can teach people about you from the way that you reimagine your influences. What are some of your favorite covers to play?
NB: Me and Justin really clicked on “Hey Hey My My” by Led Zeppelin. That was one early on when I came in that we grooved to.
KO: “Penitentiary” is by Houndmouth. It’s a really fun, very simple song. I would write rather music, but not everybody wants to hear that (initially). So, interpreting other people’s music into our sound is the fun part to me.
JT: Taking someone else’s song and making it your own and doing your own little twists to it is almost as satisfying as playing your own music. Almost.
NB: On that note, Justin does a cover of “Down in the Valley” by Head and the Heart. And, when I heard him play it, I loved the song, asked him who it was by, went, and listened to it. I actually prefer Justin’s version, the way he performs it.
KO: A lot of ours are a cover of a cover.
The EP consists of three original songs: “Creek Don’t Rise,” “Hills of Carolina,” and “Burke Street Blues.” The EP evokes a nostalgia for one’s very recent youth. These songs are about the kind of romance that only happens in a small town and mistakes that follow you the rest of your life as great stories told over bonfires and beers.
MHF: Kenny wrote Prettiest Girl in Town, but Justin wrote most of the songs on the EP. Do you guys collaborate when you write?
JT: We – well, Nate actually – wrote the majority of Prettiest Girl in Town.
KO: Nate and I wrote Prettiest Girl in Town, but he wrote most of the words. He’s (also) a father of a daughter, a single father of a daughter. So, we kind of related that way.
NB: We kind of clicked on that one. It came together pretty quick. Lyrically, when I came to the table, they already had a lot of songs that were already written, and we filled in the music and did a couple of structural changes, to kind of mix it up. But, moving forward, I think we all have a lot of input as far as the lyrics go. As far as the music goes, I don’t really have a lot of input on it. I’m like “Kenny do this banjo thing,” because I don’t know how to play the banjo. Musically, we all bring our instruments to the table, but when it comes to lyrically, we all kick it around the room pretty well.
MHF: Justin, you wrote Hills of Carolina.
MHF: You had lived in the High Country for a time after you graduated from Appalachian State and then moved back to Mocksville, your hometown, recently. Talk about how the different parts of North Carolina have influenced your music.
KO: What you just said technically describes our band name. We always were waiting for him to come back down the mountain.
JT: I wrote that song in about 15 minutes. It usually never happens like that. It’s usually a drawn out process, and I get writer’s block. It takes days or weeks to complete a song. That one, it just kind of came to me. I went to a bluegrass jam session that had really good musicians. I felt out of place at the time. It was years ago, and I just got home and felt influenced by them and everything just kind of came to me.
NB: Every now and then, the one gem will fall in your lap. It kind of writes itself.
MHF: And is that song autobiographical?
JT: Um, not really. I guess in a way.
KO: Who’d you make wait for two years?
JT: Nobody, see, nobody! It wasn’t about…well, we’ll say it’s [wife] Cellie. It’s about Cellie.
KO: No, I had this conversation with [wife] Casey recently. It’s loosely factually based, if that makes sense. We’ll take stuff out of our life and fluff it.
NB: Some of it more than others. Of course, Burke Street is very autobiographical.
JT: Burke Street is 100% a true story.
MHF: Do you want to talk a little bit about Burke Street Blues?
JT: Yeah, Burke Street Blues was a really bad night for me.
KO: Actually, before he elaborates, we have multiple songs written about that specific day, so it was an eventful 24 hours…even though I don’t know if eventful is the proper word.
MHF: I think eventful is the perfect word.
JT: My girlfriend (my wife now)…we had just broken up. I just wanted to go out on the town, find a new girl, and…I did it, unfortunately. I made a few bad decisions along the way and ended up getting arrested for trying to steal a street sign. So, that pretty much sums that one up.
KO: The only part of that that’s not factual is it was a lady cop, and he feels like his manhood would be questioned if he got taken down. I’m just kidding; there were a bunch of cops, but I like to give him a hard time.
MHF: The lady cop took you down?
JT: She did.
Collaborations with artists and musicians are on the horizon for the band, including brother-sister duo Wyld Fern. Down the Mountain recommends listeners enjoy a cold Mountain Calling IPA from Wiseman Brewery. “It fits perfectly. And, I really want to play there,” says Orsillo. “Be on the lookout, we’re going to be around."
See them Thursday, July 19 at 6:30 p.m. at O'Callahan's in Mocksville, NC.