The summer of 2017 was, in many ways, a turning point for Fayetteville-based progressive bluegrass quartet Arkansauce, which is Adams Collins on banjo, Ethan Bush on mandolin, Tom Andersen on bass, and Zac Archuleta on guitar. They share vocals and songwriting duties.
From an outside perspective, Arkansauce has enjoyed a big year: the April release of its third album, which enjoyed great reviews from publications like GratefulWeb and others that are jamgrass-heavy; they continued expanding their fan base with new tour stops in New Mexico, Colorado, Missouri, Mississippi, and Kansas; they played twice on the Main Stage at Fayetteville’s Bikes, Blues & BBQ in September (and once in between at Bikes, Bluegrass & BBQ in Eureka Springs); they played a sold-out headlining show at George’s Majestic Lounge for Fayetteville Roots Fest; and they one of 11 bands nationally selected to compete in June’s Telluride Bluegrass Festival band competition.
From the band’s perspective, 2017 has been a year of buckling down, they told me in an interview last week.
“Doing the Telluride competition elevated our drive and desire to play better and focus more on the details,” explains Collins. “Preparing for that competition, and a new commitment to paying attention to all the details in all the songs we do, spurred us to get on a new level of how serious we are taking all the details – merely playing these songs versus making them as good as we can possibly make them – searching for ways to make them better, and nailing the execution every single time.”
The past 12 months have seen the group, which formed initially as a trio in 2011 and expanded to include Collins and Andersen in 2013, getting its “ducks in a row,” taking care of the business and organizational tasks, buying a solid tour van, and releasing their best and most professionally produced record yet.
Now, Collins notes, they are really prepared to focus on growth and the necessary touring that requires.
“Buying a tour van was huge; that was kind of like the last thing standing in our way before fully committing to tour life,” he said. “We always had to borrow or rent a van, or take multiple cars, but now we have a comfortable new tour van, a good website, good merch, good albums. We took care of all the complicated details so now we can just focus on being a solid band. We are poised to dig in.”
Arkansauce bends the rules and blurs the lines between bluegrass, newgrass, folk, Americana, classic country, and even a little New Orleans-style stripped-down blues and funk. With a loyal following growing every day in the Natural State and along their tour routes, the band members are proud to be stepping into their own hard-driving sound.
The third album (If I Were You, April 2017) packed with original material featured an expanded sound with more complex melodies, intriguing rhythms, and hard-hitting hooks that leave the songs whirling around your head long after the listening experience. In addition, Bush’s songwriting influence – leaning heavily on his last three years as a Crescent City resident – is a welcome addition, as is the presence on the record of drums and guest musicians on some tracks.
GratefulWeb writes: “‘Love is a Dangerous Game’ is a very melodic tune with intricate vocals similar to those of Milk Carton Kids. ‘Parks Closed’ is a playful story about sobriety and a trip to rural Arkansas and lends itself nicely to a modern take on traditional folk. … Although the album has some heavier elements than previous releases, dealing with the subjects of death and heartache on tracks like ‘Everybody Dies’ and others, it ends on a high note with ‘Ride Ride Ride’ – a track that should go on your next car trip playlist.”
Arkansauce is one of those rare progressive bluegrass bands that sounds great both in a studio setting – emphasizing short, tightly arranged compositions – and in a live setting, where improvisation adds much flavor and variety.
But the band doesn’t allow the improv jams to get out of hand. In fact, it’s something they clearly have thought a lot about – more so than many jamgrass bands we’ve heard, in fact.
“We leave moments for improvisation during our shows, but we have a clear exit for that spacey jam kind of moment,” Andersen says. “We know ahead of time how we’re getting into it and getting out of it; we listen a lot to The Allman Brothers Band and others who are good at that kind of jamming, and they always have an auditory cue for their jams and transitions.”
Bush notes that the original material of many prog-grass bands known for their jams and transitions, such as Yonder Mountain String Band, allows for that more than their own original repertoire does.
“Our songs have a lot of different types of feels and rhythms; we don’t always play a bluegrass tempo,” he explained. “With Yonder, they often play that bouncy bluegrass tempo, and easier to string all that together. Our songs, when we write them, come out with completley different feels, so when we have those jams we practice those a lot, especially the transitions.”
Archeleta notes they always ask: “Does this serve the song? Does it keep it moving forward?”
“It’s all part of the progression of the genre; Grateful Dead was the poster child for the jamband,
but then, I think, it got to where a lot of people starting doing that style of jamming really poorly,” says Collins. “So then the next trend among the best bands on the scene was to figure out how to have those jam sessions mid-song or in between songs, but make it feel organic and keep it moving forward.
“I go to Hillberry and see the Infamous Stringdusters and Old Salt Union, and they have these long bridges and transitions, and it may come across as jamming, but it is orchestrated and well-planned, and it pulls you through the song.”
But they all recognize that fans love those moments that are not part of the “official songs,” and their commitment to refining those live improvs – which they began to focus more on while preparing for the Telluride contest – is clear, from the stage and the audience.
“Having those moments – the open part of the arrangement for us – does give us different results every single time, and that’s extra exciting for us when it builds a little differently,” Andersen notes.
“And we, too, feel that tension and excitement that the crowd feels and expresses,” Archuleta adds. “We love it.”
And so do the fans, by all accounts.
Q&A WITH ARKANSAUCE
What is the most played album of your lifetime?
Tom Andersen: Either Allman Brothers Band Live at the Fillmore East or Tool Ænima; both albums that I was turned on to during my school days that shaped me musically. Tom Waits, John Hartford, and Van Morrison are my three pillars for anytime, anywhere.
Ethan Bush: Amen Corner by Railroad Earth
Zac Archuleta: Sgt. Pepper and Abby Road were essentially on repeat in my formative years. My father is a diehard fan of the Fab Four and passed it on to me.
Adams Collins: Probably Wildflowers by Tom Petty. Petty was one of the first musicians I really got into that wasn’t music I heard from my parents. I had the greatest hits album first and then Wildflowers came out in ’94 when I was in junior high; I would listen to it over and over in the dark with headphones, learning all the subtleties and lyrics. I did this with a lot of albums during this period, but I got over most of them. I still go back and listen to Wildflowers in its entirety several times a year, and it still hits me in the feelers every time. It’s a great blend of hard-rock songs, delicate ballads, and 100% Petty through and through.
What was your most moving live music experience ever?
Andersen: It’s hard to say “this moment was the most magical moment.” It’s like comparing the times you’ve been in love or something. … But to answer the question, I’ll pick the time My Morning Jacket surprised me by bringing John Prine on stage to sing “All The Best” in Memphis a few years ago with Wilco and Bob Dylan on the bill. It was 4th of July weekend, and I was there with a beautiful lady that I ended up marrying.
Bush: The answer to this question is constantly changing; as of right now it was Telluride Bluegrass Festival weekend this year. Specifically the Sam Bush Main Stage set; it was my first time to be in Telluride for that festival, and watching the King of Telluride throw down was unforgettable!
Archuleta: I’m sure the most magical ones I have ever had I probably don’t have an accurate recollection of. That being said, The Punch Brothers at Roots Fest was amazing. I sat in the front row like a kid watching Sesame Street. Just in awe.
Collins: Tom wrote a tune called “Parks Closed” that was on our last release. The lyrics are about having a hazy time in Eureka Springs, and there is one line that specifically references The Farm, where Hillberry happens. Eureka Springs has been an important town for me in my development as a musician playing live shows. There are a lot of venues of varying sizes there, and almost every show I played there always would end up some crazy and rowdy time. Also, Hillberry is an important fest for Arkansauce as it marks our “bandiversary.” This last Hillberry I believe was our first time to play the song on the main stage, and when we got to the line about The Farm, I loved seeing all our fans singing along about this place that we all love. I remember thinking about how lucky I am to be a part of Arkansauce and the Arkansas music scene. It gave me goosebumps.
What is currently playing in your car/iPod/stereo?
Andersen: The Fugees’ The Score. My son started building his record collection in the last year, and he bought it this evening at Block Street Records. He remembered it being one of the albums that was a soundtrack to his childhood, and he was excited to have it on vinyl. Earlier today, when I had time to myself it was Bon Iver 22, A Million and Marc Ribot Y Los Cubano Prostizos.
Bush: Labor of Love by Fruition.
Archuleta: Greensky Bluegrass’ Casual Wednesday all-Grateful Dead set.
Collins: When I’m not listening to the radio, I have a 3-CD set of Leftover Salmon from their 25-year anniversary shows. I never get tired of listening to Drew Emmitt’s singing and Andy Thorne’s banjo playing. I’ve also been getting into LPs at home and have most recently been listening to both of John Fullbright’s albums and Chris Stapleton’s Traveler.
What is your biggest music-related pet peeve?
Andersen: I’m annoyed by music that isn’t authentic. I want music that makes me feel something. I don’t care what genre it is.
Bush: Driving, driving, driving, and driving.
Archuleta: People trying too hard to look cool (while performing). Just be yourself and have fun.
Collins: Laziness and complacency! It’s really fun to be a musician in that you don’t have a boss or set schedule, but I still treat it as a job. I think about all the people that get up early and put in 40+ hours a week at their jobs and realize if I am not committing similar time and effort, then I am not a real full-time musician. That time includes practicing, rehearsing, booking, promoting, traveling, tour van maintenance, etc. I don’t strive to be an OK musician; I want to be the best I am capable of being. So I am constantly analyzing what I am doing and trying to think of ways to make it better. … I try and think of Arkansauce as a small business with 4 employees, and I desire to make it thrive.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned as a musician?
Andersen: Don’t get in the way of the song. Being really well-prepared and knowing the song intimately gives me the tools I need. The goal is to get find the space where my heart is in the driver’s seat and not my head. I try to hang out in that space as much as possible when I’m performing.
Bush: Music is the great equalizer, it doesn’t matter who you seem to be. When you whip out your instrument, you are measured by the time, effort, and passion that you’ve sunk into making it a part of your life.
Archuleta: Be humble. Whether you are sitting in with other musicians or talking to promoters or fans. If it wasn’t for them, I couldn’t live the life of doing what I love.
Collins: Don’t give up! I love being a musician and the lifestyle that goes with it. It is not always easy, especially starting out, but I’ve wanted to be a career musician since I was 12. I’ve found that as long as I keep working hard, every year the gigs get better, the music sounds better, the payouts are better, and life is slightly easier. I hope to keep that trend going until the day I die!