The Applebutter Express: Bonnaroo bluegrassers chug toward the big time
(Welcome to tbt*’s Ultimate Local Music Guide! All week we’re spotlighting 10 of our favorite local artists of the past year. Today: Bluegrass jam band the Applebutter Express.)
The Applebutter Express were just six months in as a full band when they played the biggest U.S. music festival east of the Mississippi River.
So where could two voices and 12 strings possibly go from there?
Anywhere and everywhere from the looks of it, we’d say.
Hard to categorize, but super-easy to indulge in, this bluegrass-jam-ukulele-soul-funk-Americana act out of Seminole Heights has had a whirlwind year since playing the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival last June.
And during a late afternoon in St. Petersburg, they can’t help getting a little nostalgic about it all.
“The hour and a half that we were on stage at Bonnaroo was incredible,” says ukulele player and singer Kyle Biss. “People were lined up as far as we could see. I’ll never forget it.”
Plus, the festival opened up a ton of doors for the band, he says.
“For one, we got in at the Spirit of the Suwannee Springfest,” says Biss. “That actually meant even more to me because it’s exactly where I sat watching bands going, 'Man, I’d give anything to be on that stage.’”
You see, before the four Applebutter bandmates became performers at big-time festivals like Bonnaroo and Wanee, they were routinely on the other side of the railing as observers and after-hours tinkerers.
“That’s kind of how we got started — going around to all the campfires in the area after the festival music was over and just playing for everyone,” says Biss’s wife, the bubbly singing soulstress Shannon Biss. “We got a really cool grassroots following that way. We get people all the time that say, I saw you at 5 a.m. at Wanee Fest.”
Now one of the most in-demand bands in Tampa Bay (if you haven’t seen the name on a local bill or a marquee, you just haven’t been looking), the Applebutter Express are contemplating their fine timing and the rising state of harmonic string music.
“For the longest time, people couldn’t give two hoots about people singing harmonies,” says fiddle man Joe Trivette. “And that used to make music.”
“And songs with mandolins, no chance,” upright bass player Matt DeSear chimes in.
“String bands just haven’t mattered for a long time,” admits Shannon Biss.
That is, until now.
With acts like Mumford and Sons, Avett Brothers and the Civil Wars cracking new levels of commercial success, the quartet is getting particularly perky about the future.
“We have to be thankful they’re out there,” says Kyle Biss. “We’re really lucky to be coming around in this time.”
And coming around they are. Another one of those Bonnaroo-door openers came in the form of a first-rate Nashville recording experience. The band recorded its forthcoming album with esteemed mix man Matt Andrews at Sound Emporium, a place where Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, Willie Nelson and even Taylor Swift once sat doing the same.
“It was all recorded live together as a band,” says DeSear. “There was great vibe too, all done analog, no Pro Tools, just two-inch tape, vintage gear and all that.”
And the tunes?
“We play a couple of really traditional-sounding bluegrass songs, a couple of really funky songs and then a whole lot of stuff that at one point was Southern rock but now is some kind of weird mix — let’s call it highbrow neoclassical,” says Trivette.
But what’s making an album without a hiccup or two?
Just a few weeks ago on the way home from Nashville, the band’s Volkswagen van broke down in rural Georgia. Parts-store issues, rental car trouble and a hailstorm made the trip a near disaster. Plus, they missed some much-needed Game of Thrones time.
But by the looks of things back home in St. Pete, particularly when they’re playfully jamming on a number affectionately dubbed The Hurricane Song, the Express wouldn’t change a thing about their ride to the big time.
-- Carole Liparoto, tbt*