Austin Quattlebaum was intrigued by the banjo, but he didn’t really like bluegrass. Then he caught some jam bands at a Florida rock festival incorporating banjo into their sound. The floodgates opened a few months later, when he caught avant-jazz banjo player Béla Fleck.
“My whole brain cracked open,” Quattlebaum says. “That’s when I decided to try to do the banjo thing.”
It was a smart move. Growing up in Savanna, Georgia, all his friends were strumming guitars. He wanted to join in, but he didn’t see much point in being just another guitarist in the oversaturated landscape of guitar players.
The singer-songwriter, who’s currently based in Portland, Oregon, tours the country with just his vocal chords and a banjo (and occasionally a guitar), picking and strumming somber indie-folk songs that are spacious and emotive, and have an implicit groove to them. When he plays, you can hear the reverberations of the rustic mountains clashing with the breezy ocean.
“It is a new thing for a lot of people,” Quattlebaum says of solo singer-songwriter songs on the banjo.
Before Portland, he went to college in Asheville, North Carolina. There, he got a proper education on his instrument, but it was, of course, in the context of a bluegrass band. The school had an Appalachian folk music department. But he’s OK with it now that he’s more acquainted with the instrument.
“When you’re a banjo player studying bluegrass, it’s kind of like the Suzuki method in classical violin. If you don’t really have that foundation, it’s kind of hard to take it in a new direction,” Quattlebaum says. “I’ve never considered myself a traditionalist. Even growing up in the South and practicing bluegrass in North Carolina, I feel like even if I wanted to be like ‘I’m a traditional bluegrass player,’ the locals still would have been like, ‘Nope.’”
He hit the road after college, rambling the countryside in his Volkswagen, armed with his banjo, eventually landing in the Sierra foothills near South Lake Tahoe. There he recorded his first solo album, 2013’s The Ghost Tangled in the Oaks, which has some prominent country and bluegrass elements in it. The songs are also full of stories and an overall storytelling approach to songwriting. After its release, he started the band the Crow and the Canyon in Portland, and joined the Sam Chase in San Francisco, as well as occasionally contributing to a third band over in the Sierra foothills. But he wasn’t the primary songwriter in all of these projects.
He kept on writing and performing as a solo artist, originally under his full name, but eventually shortening it to just Quattlebaum. His participation in those other bands recently lowered significantly, giving him the chance to finally record a lot of these solo songs he’s been working on for a while.
Quattlebaum released his follow-up album, EP Vol. 1, in October. The bluegrass and country influences are nearly buried underneath the surreal and lonesome, almost vintage folk sounds that dominate the new record.
“It was time for some new music and the older album … it was old. It didn’t really feel like me anymore. I wanted to put out something a little more representative of my solo show,” Quattlebaum says.
The new songs also have less storytelling and are more abstract lyrically. Quattlebaum says that there are usually stories somewhere in the music, but that it tends to come out more abstract, with lines pieced together artfully like poetry.
“I’ll just puke out a bunch of words on the page, and then go back through and kind of rearrange my thoughts. Sometimes in that method of editing, the story gets lost, but there is still some descriptive writing in there,” Quattlebaum says.
He’s developed his show to be a more complete, full, live experience. Which is why he switches his instruments around on stage, and even tries to incorporate some comedy and funny stories in between songs.
He’s finds all kinds of ways to mix it up as just one person.
“I’m not doing just straightforward rollicking bluegrass stuff the whole time. It’s more dynamic than that,” Quattlebaum says. “I like to get spacey and dance-y sometimes, but then I do kick it into high gear and play some bluegrass stuff as well.”
Quattlebaum plays at 9 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 13, at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. 429-6994.