Hunger Mountain is in Monterey, Massachusetts, about 10 miles east of Great Barrington. But on this early June day its peak is pretty much impossible to make out, thanks to the thick, rainy mist that blankets the Berkshires and makes the roads a sopping mess. On the other hand, the disagreeable weather also means it’s especially nice to be warm and dry in the Victorian parlor-like coziness of Club Helsinki’s dining room, sharing tea and veggie burgers with Hunger Mountain Boys’ singer, guitarist, and dobro player Teddy Weber and string bassist Matt Downing.
“Kip [Beacco, 37, sings and plays guitar, fiddle, and mandolin in the group] built a timber-frame house on that mountain,” says the sideburned, 30-year-old Weber from beneath his ever-present, beat-up fedora. “He and his family even live on Mount Hunger Road,” adds Downing, lean, scruffy, and 29.
Country-derived sounds have, of course, never fully disappeared from America’s musical landscape. But far too much of what’s been pumped out of Nashville in the name of country over the last several years has been either signifier-driven, boot-scootin’ schmaltz or, far worse, jingoistic, chest-beating hate music. Part of a burgeoning scene of new, tradition-conscious American acoustic artists, The Hunger Mountain Boys bypass the ill turns country has made in recent times, instead taking the music back to its 1920s and ’30s rural, string-band roots and injecting it with just the right amount of Noughties consciousness.
The roots in Weber’s life, however, haven’t only been of those of the musical variety. “I grew up in a little town in northern New Jersey called Branchville,” he recalls. “And in 1996 I moved to Maine to study forestry.” While each of his fellow members also sports a noteworthy performing resume (Beacco played in garage and jazz-fusion bands; Downing did time in top Philadelphia bluegrass outfit Jim & Jennie and The Pinetops), Weber’s is easily the most eclectic, including classical trumpet training and stints in ska bands and college jazz ensembles. After his tree-lined days in Maine, he went to Colorado for a year (“There’s a really big ‘newgrass’ scene there, but I wasn’t part of it.”) before ending up in the Berkshires/Hudson Valley area in the fall of 2001.
“When I got here, right away, I was like ‘I gotta meet the local musicians. I gotta find out what’s going on around here,’” Weber says. After spying one of their posters, he checked out a few gigs by The Beartown Mountain Ramblers, an early band that featured Beacco and Downing. (“We weren’t very good, but people loved us,” Downing says.) But Weber didn’t approach them directly.
“I had put up an ad saying, ‘Dobro player available for jamming or recording’ in a music store,” remembers Weber. “Of course, since there aren’t that many players around here who are into this stuff, Matt found the ad and called me up. We all started jamming at Kip’s house, me and about half the guys from the Ramblers and some other local musicians, and Kip and I just instantly hit it off. Matt was just about to go on the road with Jim & Jennie and The Pinetops, so the Ramblers were winding down and Kip was really gung-ho to start something with me.” And so with a hearty nod to legendary old-time country and bluegrass twosomes like those of the Delmore, Monroe, Louvin, Allen, and Stanley brothers, The Hunger Mountain Boys were born.
Weber and Beacco hit the festival and club circuits hard, where their trademark vintage suits and charming, microphone-sharing singing style made them stand out right away. But while cool visual elements are nice, they’re not much more than that if the band doesn’t have the goods to back them up. Rest assured, The Hunger Mountain Boys have the goods. In fact, they have the whole darn general store. On heart-tugging tearjerkers like their take on the timeless murder ballad “Katie Dear,” the pair’s aching high harmonies crest and coil around one another as they rise to meet the stars, helped along by the soaring slide of Weber’s steel dobro. On high-speed barnburners like the runaway “Departure Day,” Beacco’s razor-sharp mandolin sprints to the finish like a hunted fox, his agile fingers burning up the frets like pure white lightning.
After a time, the Boys decided to capture some of that lightning on disc. So they turned to Off The Beat-n-Track studios in nearby Sheffield, Massachusetts, where they cut their first two rollicking CDs, 2003’s Fashioned in the Old Way and 2004’s Blue Ribbon Waltz. Both were released on the group’s own Old-Fi Records with producer Todd Mack, who also hosts “The Off The Beat-n-Track Radio Show” on WKCR. Both discs are now out of print.