By Michael Lello
Photo by Jason Riedmiller
The word old-timey has been getting a lot of mileage in the music world the past few years, but Coal Town Rounders have accurately embodied the overused term since their inception. With four musicians huddled around a microphone, stepping away when it’s another’s turn to solo, the band evokes a simpler time, and avoids the trappings of the latest neo-folk craze.
While the band – Christopher Kearney (acoustic guitar, vocals), Matthew Hiller (mandolin, vocals), Jason Zarnowski (upright bass, vocals) and Ian O’Hara (banjo, vocals) – comes from various musical backgrounds, the common ground between them has allowed them to coalesce into a tight-picking unit and a live act whose popularity continues to grow since it formed (with a different lineup) in 2009.
“What appealed to all of us was old, traditional bluegrass songs,” Kearney said during an interview at The Bog in Scranton last week in advance of the group’s slot at Saturday, May 10’s Susquehanna Breakdown festival at Montage Mountain in Scranton.
While Kearney is the lead vocalist, all four Rounders sign, and their rich vocal blend is one that came naturally, he said. “Jason sings the high harmonies, and Matt with the smallest instrument, the mandolin, sings the low parts,” said Kearney.
The band’s material is comprised of public-domain traditionals, bluegrass standards and reworked rock songs, like The Band’s “The Shape I’m In” and Ryan Adams’ “Winding Wheel.” For now, the band has not played any original songs.
“I used to get bummed out because we don’t play original music. But in this vein of music, it’s accepted,” Kearney said. “I’ve written songs, but I haven’t brought them to the table.”
Coal Town Rounders’ live shows have found the band playing less-than-typical venues, like the Hawley Silk Mill and various festivals and outdoor events. A highlight for Kearney, he said, was playing at the Dalton Carnival, where he grew up.
That said, the band does also perform in bars. And winning over a chatty audience without electric instruments or drums might seem like a challenge, but Kearney said it hasn’t been much of an issue.
“I used to get stressed about it. But I don’t really care about it anymore, because we’re loud enough that you’re going to hear us,” he said. “If you don’t want to listen, you don’t have to. If you do, just take a step closer to the band.”
Last year, the CTRs played at Montage for Old Farmer’s Ball, Susquehanna Breakdown under its previous name and played one of the event’s most memorable sets.
“I’m looking forward to having a really good time (at Susquehanna Breakdown), Kearney said. “Last year was so much fun. It just had a great vibe, everybody was smiling. I felt like a rock star being up on the same stage as like Slayer, those Up In Smoke tours, Britney Spears played there,” he added with a laugh. “It felt cool.”
The festival is hosted by Cabinet, a Northeastern Pa. band whose popularity has spread well beyond its homebase, with tours of the Northeast, Southeast and Midwest occurring annually and festival bookings including this summer’s Lock’n Festival, where they’ll share a bill with Tom Petty, Willie Nelson, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and other luminaries. The growth of Cabinet, Kearney said, has helped open some doors for CTRs.
“Absolutely. I will ride their coattails as long as I can,” he said, laughing. “They’ve been around longer than we have, they’re a way bigger band with a way bigger reach. Bigger, better. It’s awesome to watch.”