Progressive Bluegrass:

by Shannon Rae Gentry
The Family Hammer
16 Taps • 127 Princess Street
6/18, 9 p.m. – midnight
Tickets: $5 at door

STRIKE HARD: The Family Hammer, a new bluegrass band out of D.C., travel south to 16 Taps this Saturday. Courtesy photo.

Societies across the globe and through the ages have one undisputable commonality: music. The styles and sounds have always varied, and eventually were separated into genres and sub-genres. Exactly when bluegrass was labeled as such is not certain, but it started in the musically eclectic areas like the Appalachian region, where many Scottish and  German immigrants brought the sounds of their homelands.

Since, bluegrass has developed and separated into sub-genres, like traditional, newgrass, funkgrass, bluegrass gospel and so on. However, labeling the acoustic bands, like newcomers The Family Hammer, is difficult, according to band member Neal Humphrey (fiddle/vocals).

“Traditional bluegrass really has a fairly well-defined sound,” Humphrey explains, “and lots of bands end up using custom genre definitions to describe their sound. The music we play is on the acoustic side of folk rock or Americana, and on the blended, modern side of bluegrass. ‘Progressive bluegrass’ is probably the best term, but we haven’t really found a satisfying way to describe what we play.”

Humphrey began his musical journey when his parents decided violin lessons would benefit his childhood. “I’ve played off and on since—often more off than on,” he admits, “but enough to still be able to pick it up again. I started playing the tunes [my dad] played: mostly Celtic and old-time fiddle.”

Ironically, it wasn’t until Humphrey left to study abroad in Australia when he started to play bluegrass. Following his return to the states, he met a group of musicians in D.C., including Nick Bayard.

Bayard picked up a guitar when he was 15 and taught himself how to play Grateful Dead tunes until he mastered one of their more layered and nuanced albums, “American Beauty.” “After that I played in a string of rock bands, and discovered bluegrass, old time and banjo/fiddle tunes when I was living in Wyoming,” Bayard reveals.

He began an ongoing love affair with playing acoustic music, even inspired to form what he says was most likely the only bluegrass band to ever exist in Paraguay.

To understand the “bluegrass” of The Family Hammer, folks need to only attend one of their rompin’-stompin’ sessions. With harmonies and lead vocals provided by all five members, it is no less than remarkable to realize that Humphrey and Bayard formed TFH a short year ago. Their first performance was in December 2010, after collecting the rest of their musically diverse members.

Ted Collins (bass/vocals) grew up in Chicago and has played the stand-up bass since the fourth grade. Trained in nearly every genre—classical, jazz, blues and rock–except bluegrass—improvisation is where Collins feels most engaged. “Oddly enough, you learn a lot about rhythm when you don’t have a drummer,” he says, “and I especially like how each individual instrument plays a vital role in establishing rhythm.”

Wren Elhai (fiddle/mandolin/vocals) began classical violin training before getting into musical theater and a cappella singing in middle school. “After college, I spent a year traveling the world, studying different traditions of vocal music, including Tuvan throat-singing and human beatbox,” he says. When he settled  in the capital, Elhai stumbled upon a new musical outlet. “It’s been a wonderful year getting to know this music and turning my violin skills into fiddle chops—and now mandolin as well!”

Ryan Wittke (banjo/dobro/vocals) also started playing music at an early age when an elementary school teacher attempted to pair him with every instrument under the sun. Nothing clicked until he picked up the cello.

“It stuck,” Wittke confesses. Four or five years later, he traded it for an acoustic guitar, then an electric bass, only to switch to upright bass. “I dabbled in jazz and still love the blues, and eventually caught wind of a local bluegrass band that played weekly at a crappy little bar in Philadelphia,” Wittke says. “These guys got me psyched, and between them and a banjo-frailing roommate of mine, I started to learn the repertoire.”

Like his band mates, Wittke answered to the bluegrass call by joining TFH. He credits it as being nothing shy of a challenging and rewarding experience. However, contributing to those rewards and coinciding with their humble beginnings are every musicians bane of existence: day jobs. But these guys see things differently. Music as they know it is fun right now.

“Several of us work for non-profits in energy, global development, education,” Humphrey expains, “so [TFH] is a side project and so far has been D.C.-based. We’re excited to expand it a bit with light touring, just enough to have some fun road trips, but not enough where it becomes a burden.”

Being from Wilmington, Humphrey’s father prompted this first visit after seeing his son play. The band entertained him with a few of their favorite creepy old songs about double-crossing, gut-wrenching dealings and general outlaw behavior. “And any song dealing with death and murder, of course,” Wittke adds.

“There’s an Irish tune in particular, ‘Tam Lin,’ that’s become one of our signature tunes,” Humphrey divulges. “It’s always the one guaranteed to get the crowd stomping and cheering.”

“We’re wrapping up the recording of our first CD,” Bayard adds, “which features six of our original tunes, in addition to four [covers]. We’re still working on the title, so if you come to the show, please feel free to drop something in the suggestion box!”

The Family Hammer plays Saturday, June 18 at 16 Taps on Princess Street. The show starts at 9 p.m.

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