Live and unplugged 

String band stalwarts Broken Valley Roadshow release new CD

A Broken Valley Roadshow live performance is typically a rambunctious affair, but occasionally things get out of hand. During an afternoon performance at last year’s Babb Fest, for instance, a particularly inebriated man kept trying to get up onstage against the band’s wishes. After the unruly audience member sat on and crushed banjo player Matt Cornette’s sunglasses and then tried to summit the stage again, mandolin player and vocalist Nathan Biehl took action by propping up a full can of Pabst and booting it straight at the offensive onlooker.

“I sang the last note and kicked it all over the crowd,” Biehl says.

And the band hardly missed a beat, launching straight into the Alison Krauss/Gillian Welch standard “I’ll Fly Away” before realizing that Biehl’s aim wasn’t quite as accurate as his mandolin playing—the Pabst missed its target and sprayed all over several well-behaved girls dancing at the front of the stage. Biehl gets a lot of flak for that incident and with feigned exasperation says, “nobody ever tells the story where I apologized in front of the crowd.”

The anecdote fits Broken Valley Roadshow in two ways: reinforcing the belief that audiences are never really sure what they’re going to get from the upbeat Missoula string band, and that what happens at their live shows tends to overshadow the rich content and attention to history the band consistently displays.

Talking to the members of Broken Valley Roadshow around a crowded table in a coffeehouse is a little like watching them huddle around a mic on stage, each madly offering up their part before stepping back to let the next musician take a turn. In the last four years the purveyors of traditional bluegrass and old-time music have picked and fiddled their way through countless festivals, weddings and charity events, and even more bar shows. Nathan Biehl founded the band in 2003 with his sisters Angie Biehl, Hillary Wandler and Naomi Biehl, a trio with the ability to harmonize their way through everything from gospel versions of Hank Williams to the more staccato sounds of songs like “Coal Miner Blues.” A short time later, Caroline Keys (an occasional contributor to the Indy) joined them on guitar with stand-up bassist Nate Baker and banjoist Cornette. Now, after spending February in the recording studio, the band is about to release its second and most complete CD, Disgrace and Celebration.

The recording is a short but impassioned tour through traditional instrumentals such as “Fire on the Mountain” intermixed with originals by Nathan, Keys and Baker. Despite the refined sound of their originals, the band believes reworking traditional tunes is vital to their genre.

“We’re talking about stuff that was first,” says Nathan. “We’re talking about some of the greatest American poetry I have ever run across [and] we’re talking about use of language and use of ideas that’s really, I mean, it’s high art. And for me to try and add something to that, it’s scary as hell.”

Beyond Nathan’s reverence for his predecessors, he seems to have a sense that Broken Valley has something to contribute to the rich fabric of bluegrass history.

“We did a song today,” he says, “that the lineage—I mean, it’s like a racehorse. It goes from Hank Williams to Patsy Cline to my sister, who sings as good as anybody on earth.”

Reverence is one thing, but entertaining live shows are another. Broken Valley Roadshow has tour stories to tell that would make most bands—even the sleaziest of rock bands—either blush or turn green with envy. And it’s this range of entertainment that makes the title of Disgrace and Celebration deliciously apt: that they can play a wholesome show in White Sulphur where, the band claims, some audience members were actually knitting, or they can play to a liquored-up crowd at the Dirty Shame Saloon in Yaak. Another example: a couple years ago at the Lochsa River Rendezvous they played a set that started at 8 p.m. and ended at 4:30 a.m.— a marathon that nearly knocked them out.

“I’ve never seen Matt [Cornette] stop playing the banjo at a gig,” Hillary Wandler says. “But at this show, at one point there was a guy directly in front of me blowing pot smoke in my face and I believe he also was naked, but anyway I look down and Matt is holding onto the microphone. It looked like the only thing that was holding him up and he was swaying back and forth moving his lips. I don’t think he was singing anything but he was definitely not playing the banjo.” She adds with a laugh: “I thought we’d hit an all-time, well, I don’t know if it was a high or a low.”

On another occasion, perhaps more decidedly “a low,” the band found themselves covered in mites just moments before they had to take a barroom stage.

“I was standing on this porch [at a house next to the bar] and I felt like I had hair on my face—I just kept itching,” says Cornette. “I looked down and saw these little mites all over the place.”

Baker was itching too, but Keys had been the one wearing a dress while hanging out on the porch and when she got onstage, Nathan says, “suddenly her legs clamp together and she goes, ‘Oh my God, something’s biting me.’”

Keys says, “I knew I had to drown them out so I grabbed toilet paper and a bottle of Jim Beam. I doused the toilet paper and made a full maxi pad out of that, and that’s how I played the entire set.”

If chaos coupled with adaptation is a way of life for Broken Valley Roadshow, Disgrace and Celebration is no exception. Keys says the album isn’t the polished sort of bluegrass that sounds like it exists in a vacuum; it’s purposely not as tight as it could be. But if the band had gone into the studio with more of a plan, she says the album might not sound quite as fun.

When Naomi Biehl expresses her disappointment with certain aspects of the album, Nathan shoots her a look and says, “You’re insatiable,” before adding to the group: “We’re all very insatiable and that’s part of the reason we got as far as we did. We’re willing to look hard at what we’re doing.”

For some members, that meant being honest about the future of Broken Valley. Naomi (who replaced original fiddle player Carrie Stensrud) recorded the album and then left for medical school in California this fall. Keys and Angie Biehl each wrestled with the idea of going to graduate school before deciding they’d stick it out with the band for at least one more year. Such dilemmas have put pressure on all of them, says Nathan, ever since the band’s inception. But Nathan is steadfast about keeping Broken Valley together for as long as possible and playing bluegrass and old-time music with the kind of passion he sees as the band’s greatest asset.

“We try to push the envelope until it’s nearly falling apart, musically,” he says. “If we’ve got the right crowd we try to take a song and deconstruct it until it nearly blows up, and then bring it right back where we started. We are people who deal well with uncertainty.”

Whether he’s discussing a particular song, the long-term future of the band or the outcome of their next show, it’s a hard point to argue.

Broken Valley Roadshow plays its CD-release show for Disgrace and Celebration at the Union Club Friday, Oct. 13, at 9 PM. Free.

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