Pete Winne and Jake Hoffman were randomly assigned as college roommates during their first year at Vassar College in upstate New York. Though they had never met before, they soon realized they had lots in common. First and foremost: their love of music.
“Eventually we started singing together,” said Hoffman, who along with Winne plays banjo, guitar and bass. “Our dorm bathrooms showers had only a couple curtains separating them, and sometimes we’d take showers at the same time, singing in harmony with Pete’s baritone and my tenor, and fellow students would think we were in the same shower together.”
Those early days of musical exploration eventually found its way post-college to Portland, and blossomed into a partnership that’s lasted more than a decade, and has now grown to include multi-instrumentalist Kyle Morgan as the Portland-based Americana trio the Tumbling Bones. The band’s first full-length album, “Loving a Fool,” is now out digitally, and will have a full U.S. record release on June 3.
“Loving a Fool” is an upbeat, warm, well-produced, assured collection of 13 songs, that fits neatly into the current Americana revival. But where many of those revival bands with banjos and beards seek to smooth off those country-fried edges in favor of a more accessible pop sound, the Tumbling Bones fully embrace them. All three grew up on a steady diet of the Beatles, Springsteen and The Band, but further exploration found the roots of all that classic rock.
“We all realized that all our heroes were drawing on an immense history of American music for inspiration. I personally first got into traditional music through my father’s love of the Grateful Dead and all their country, jug-band, bluegrass, and old-time influences,” said Hoffman. “Once you find out who Bill Monroe, Gus Cannon, and Jimmie Rodgers are, you can’t go back.”
One of the centerpieces of “Loving a Fool” is their rollicking, enjoyable take on the classic Louvin Brothers song, “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby,” full of high harmonies and zippy bluegrass fire. They take on Bill Monroe’s “Voice Heard On High,” retrofitted in the studio with a crackly old radio effect. In fact, only about half of the album in total is comprised of original Tumbling Bones songs, mostly written by Morgan; the rest are traditional songs and classics of country, bluegrass, gospel and folk.
“We did consider making an entirely original album, but we wanted to show that we love playing the old tunes too,” said Hoffman. “And because we put our own stamp on them, they fit really well with the original stuff. Our shows are just like the album, going back and forth between traditional and original material. At first we were afraid of confusing listeners, but in the end I think the record simply sounds like us and what we do best.”
The original songs that did make the album are terrific, like lead single “Money is for Spending,” anchored by a rockabilly beat and made heavenly by those full-throated three-part harmonies. All three bandmates play multiple instruments, and all three sing their hearts out.
That love of big harmonies comes from that early influence of The Band, as well as that later, more fundamental influence of bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley.
“Nobody’s singing lightly — everyone’s going full force, not afraid to stand out, but also complimenting the other voices with his own,” said Hoffman. “We try to take that feeling and approach to our gospel songs as well as a lot of the other harmony singing we do.”
Hoffman, Morgan and Winne are spending the months of April and May touring Ireland, the United Kingdom and Germany; they return stateside in June for a series of shows up and down the East Coast, including a stop at the Mill Hill Inn in Bethel July 5, One Longfellow Square in Portland on July 26, and the World Acadian Congress in Van Buren on Aug. 9. “Loving a Fool” is available for streaming or for a $10 download at tumblingbones.bandcamp.com.