Smile Politely

Put your dancin’ pants on for Howlin’ Brothers

If you can’t enjoy the simple things in life, you might as well throw in the towel. The complicated things are difficult to come by and they’re hardly worth the strife, once you get them. Me? I’m easy to please. I want a warm hug, a good meal, and music that makes my knees buckle. The way to my heart is through tight harmony, steady bass, and aching melody.

I discovered a band that delivers on all fronts. I am so glad I gave these boys a listen. They deliver top-notch music that will melt your limbs one moment and lift you onto the dance floor the next. I can see audiences falling in love with (and to) the sounds of The Howlin’ Brothers. 

I had the opportunity to talk to Ian Craft (banjo, mandolin, fiddle, vocals) this week, and I can see where the band’s likability comes from. If Craft’s friendly demeanor is any indication of the group’s collective personality, I may need to schedule a chat with the others. They’re playing at Cowboy Monkey this upcoming Friday, July 5, which may be the perfect opportunity to get my off-the-record interview. I can’t imagine Jared Green (guitar, harmonica, vocals) or Ben Plasse (upright bass, banjo, vocals) being any less delightful than their howlin’ brother.

Smile Politely: How did you all get started in music together?

Ian Craft: We got started back in Ithaca, New York. We all lived there and went to school. We started picking around the campfire, which turned into a weekly hang — anyone and everyone was welcome. That led us to start a string band. It was a good energy, live. Very different than the electric world we had all been a part of. 

SP: What is the biggest difference in playing in a string band versus electric?

Craft: The difference to me is a more [intimate] experience with the crowd. Electric music is awesome; I love it. For many years, I played drums in bands and it’s an awesome feeling being that LOUD — it truly rocks! To be able to get a crowd to the same level of intensity as a screaming-loud electric band…

But with banjo, upright [bass], and acoustic guitar … that’s an amazing feeling. It shows me it’s all about the connection with your audience. Doesn’t matter what the instrumentation is if you connect … it’s on!

SP: You must connect with your band mates on tour. How is that? Do you have any epic fights?

Craft: Touring is awesome. It’s obviously hard not being home, but the chance to meet people in their hometown is really an amazing experience. You have conversations and feel what it would be like to live there. 

As far as fighting … we are the Howlin’ Brothers. We are brothers. So, yeah, we get on sometimes, but, just like any brothers, you live and you learn. I wouldn’t trade playing music with these two guys (Jared Green and Ben Plasse) for anything in this world. [Next lines should be sung.] We are the three best friends that anyone could ever have / the three best friends that anyone could ever have…

SP: That’s going to be stuck in my head all day now. Where do you like to play?

Craft: We love playing everywhere. This country has some awesome dancing culture going on. We’ve seen it all the way up in New York City, out to Sebastopol, California and Austin, Texas. Young and old get out on the floor and dance, and that’s the best possible scenario for us. Playing music is seeing people having fun — smiling, dancing, getting on, having a great time. It sends the energy of the music to a higher level.

One place that really stands out to us is the Barns of Rose Hill in Berryville, Virginia. That’s an awesome venue with amazing staff that runs all the events. Cheryl and Brian took such good care of us; they even brought us fishing. Amazing folks are everywhere. We are lucky to be able to be out meeting them all! 

A few others that were a lot of fun were The Freight and Salvage in Berkley, California; The Mint in Los Angeles; Hill Country Live in NYC; my mom’s house in Homer, New York. In Denver, Colorado, we got to open for the Duhks (pronounced “ducks”). They were awesome! The crowd was one of our bigger ones — about 350 people. That was one of our best nights. The Colorado crowds sure love good acoustic music. It’s real cool!

SP: You’ve been all over! Any good stories?

Craft: The only bummer of the … west coast was, about three hours outside of L.A., smoke started rolling from under the hood! We pulled off to a garage; the mechanic was as cool as can be. He said, ‘You play music because it’s in your heart,’ as he poked Jared in the chest with the oil dipstick, ‘I fix cars because it is in mine.’ He was the real deal. His wife was set up under a tent out front, selling Italian ice. 

Anyways, he joked with us for a while then said, ‘If you don’t make it to L.A., call me, but your transmission is totally fried.’ NOT what you wanna hear when you’re three thousand miles from home! But life has a way of working things out. Luckily, we were able to meet up with a friend in L.A. and use a van while ours was [being] fixed. Didn’t even miss one gig!

SP: How would you describe your sound? (“We’re like ______ and _____ had a baby that listened to nothing but ______ and was raised by ______.”)

Craft: That’s always a tough question. I mean, our sound is our own at this point — always adapting and morphing into something else. We’re a stringband that is influenced by everything we see, hear, eat, and experience. We got started learning some bluegrass, then getting more into the ole time (all the while loving the blues and old country like Hank Williams Sr., Faron Young … all those great singers). Of course, being a drummer, I’ve always been influence by cool grooves like New Orleans or Brazilian music. It all melts into our gumbo of oletime, blues, original, and folk stylings.

If this was a Madlibs, the fill-in-the-blanks would be:

We’re like cornbread and chicken pot pie had a baby and listened to nothing but fillet gumbo and was raised by a spoon, served with a glass of beer.

SP: You do know the way to this woman’s heart! What are some of your personal and musical inspirations?

Craft: Some musical influences would be Doc Watson, Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, Johnny Horton, Howlin Wolf, Mississippi John Hurt … and of course John Hartford! 

Personally, my family is my biggest inspiration, including my other two howlin’ brothers. I have had the good fortune of having a family that not only didn’t think I was crazy for moving to Nashville with a banjo and a suitcase, they actually said, ‘You’re gona make it,’ and have given so much love and support throughout the years. I know a lot of folks see [music] as not a real job, but that’s so far from the truth. If we didn’t have music, the world wouldn’t go ’round.

SP: What can people expect to see at the Howlin’ Brothers show this Friday night?

Craft: People can expect to see three brothers pouring their hearts out every night, regardless of the size of the crowd. And don’t forget to put your dancin’ pants on, ’cause dancing is probably going to happen!

The Howlin’ Brothers are set to perform at Cowboy Monkey with locals Hi Ho Buffalo on Friday, July 5, at 10 p.m.

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