Alums stretch bluegrass music boundaries
What do you get when you cross the instruments and tight arrangements of a traditional bluegrass band with a musical sensibility that draws from artists like the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Townes Van Zant, plus an eclectic mix of other genres such as rockabilly and swing?
Joel Serdenis and Travis Young, both from the class of 1995, decided to find out. The result is the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers, a non-traditional bluegrass band featuring original songs composed by Serdenis and Young that have an infectious, almost rock-like drive and energy.
Whatever the exact sound of the band is—and reviewers have bent their vocabularies out of shape trying to define this particular musical fusion—the Blind Corn Liquor Pickers are serving it up with gusto in live performances and on their first two CDs.
Mare Wakefield of Performing Songwriter called the group’s sound “...rowdy, party-time bluegrass-rock...” while Tony Kiss, entertainment editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times, labeled it “...fast-picking, get-out-of-their-way, mow-you-over bluegrass” and Joe Ross of Bluegrass Now referred to their “...raw energy and brash attitude.” The terms slamgrass, punkabilly, and bluegrass postmodernism have also been applied.
Serdenis and Young, neither of whom grew up with an awareness of traditional bluegrass, provide most of the songwriting and arranging for the band while also playing (mandolin and banjo, respectively) and singing.
It was a fascination with the sound produced by the standard bluegrass instruments—fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, and upright bass—that originally drew the two of them, along with the other band members, to the genre.
“We all loved the tones those instruments produce together,” said Serdenis. “But we didn’t want to pigeonhole ourselves by copying the feeling or the lyrics of Bill Monroe or other great bluegrass acts from the past.”
The result is songs that reference a rock musician, an imaginary flood of bourbon whiskey, and the city life that makes the singer a “Bluegrass wannabe.” Even songs that reference old standbys like trains and farm life have a layer of imagery that takes them beyond the bluegrass standards.
For their second album, 2005’s Anywhere Else?, the group was fortunate to have the services of eight-time Grammy-winning producer and engineer Bil VornDick, who has guided and influenced such notables as Allison Krauss, Doc Watson, Bela Fleck, and Rhonda Vincent, among others. The CD represents a distinct evolution from their first self-titled album.
“Anywhere Else? is all original songs except for the Talking Heads cover,” said Young. “It shows us going away from being a bluegrass cover band to being a fully formed original songwriting team.”
For 2007, the band will play about 50 gigs, including festivals, clubs, and private performances. They have appeared in 11 states, from Wisconsin to Georgia, and been featured on international radio programs.
And even though a full-time career in music is always a possibility, day jobs are still in order for Young, a Japanese interpreter with a Frankfort firm that supplies Toyota Motor Manufacturing USA in Georgetown, and Serdenis, a computer science major, who works at Lexmark.