Nu-Blu

Nu-Blu-LeadNu-Blu
Finds Success As A Cross-Genre Outfit
By Michael K. Brantley

I always tell people we’re a bluegrass band and sometimes get a puzzled look from them,” said Nu-Blu cofounder Daniel Routh. “Then I have to explain what bluegrass is and we always tell them it’s acoustic music played with power and drive, upbeat, and with passion. Sometimes, we have to explain drive and I just say, ‘Think of your favorite rock band, playing acoustic, without drums.’ I know that’s not a full description of bluegrass, but you have to find a way to relate the music to something they can understand.”

Daniel and his wife, partner and co-founder Carolyn, have lots of conversations with fans that have had little exposure to bluegrass music. Nu-Blu is on the road over 200 days a year, playing all types of venues and to all types of audiences and music listeners. Those listeners often have outdated or simply untrue perceptions about what constitutes bluegrass.

Nu-Blu, which also features T.J. Honaker on vocals and banjo and Justin Harrison on vocals and mandolin, is out promoting its new album and sixth national release, Vagabonds, on Voxhall Records. The North Carolina-based band feels it is their strongest effort yet.

Daniel said, “When people ask about our sound, we tell them to listen to Vagabonds.”

While the album is new, the concept has been in the works for well over a decade. “The concept for this album came about when Carolyn heard Sawyer Brown do their song ‘Gypsies On Parade’ live. We’ve known since 2003 when we formed the band, we wanted to record this song. It sets the mood for the whole album, and the title comes out of that song—from a line that says: Vagabonds that got it made.”

The new album is different in several ways for Nu-Blu. It’s the first effort that doesn’t include any songs written by the Rouths.

“How this came together is unusual,” Daniel said. “We typically don’t record cover songs, and Vagabonds has more cover tunes than we’ve ever done. We usually write songs or get songs from other songwriters and go with whatever fits that particular project best. We’re very careful about how an album flows.”

Daniel said it’s why this album was lingering in the background for so long. “When we record a song, we have to make sure we feel something—happy, sad, angry, something. It needs to hit us emotionally, and it also has to fit the whole story we’re trying to tell with the album. For example, ‘Still Small Voice’ was pitched to us a couple of albums ago, and it just didn’t fit, but when we were working on Vagabonds, Carolyn knew instantly that the timing was right for it. That’s happened on just about every album. Sometimes, you just have to wait on things to come around.”

That’s exactly what happened with “Gypsies On Parade.” An early review referred to the song as the bluegrass equivalent of rocker Bob Seger’s “Turn The Page,” as it talks about life on the road. “It’s about being away from family,” Daniel said. “With us, you just can’t sing about it, you’ve got to live it. When we started, we were weekend warriors then, and we’re full-time now. We are more like vagabonds now—we know that emotion. At some point during the recording, we were all crying. Doing what we do, there are things that you have to sacrifice. But in the end, we have the best job in the world—to make people smile.”

A beginning that almost wasn’t

   Music brought the Rouths together earlier this century. They were both playing in a contemporary Christian band together, and Daniel was moonlighting on banjo with another band. When both groups broke up around the same time, Carolyn suggested they start a bluegrass band. However, just as they were starting out, the unthinkable happened.

“I had two strokes right after we started the band in the fall of 2003,” said Carolyn, who was in her early 30s at the time. “It was two incidents on Thanksgiving Day that happened at about the same time and affected two spots on my brain. At the onset, I couldn’t form words at all and then was in a medically-induced coma for three or four days. When I came out, I could talk.”

Undeterred, the duo (who married in 2006) got right back after it. Carolyn credits much of that to an early music teacher and mentor, Dr. JoAnn Bowman. “It was a dream to start a band, and Dr. Bowman taught me to keep going and the importance of how the show must go on; when you’re scheduled to perform, you perform,” she said. “I’m very goal-oriented. I’ve been blessed to have come back and now be full-time.”

Both of the Rouths got their starts in music early. As a teenager, Daniel got his first taste of bluegrass on a Sunday morning ride to church. “My dad was flipping through the dial on the radio and I heard something and said, ‘Whoa, flip back. What was that?’ And he said, ‘That’s bluegrass.’ It was Flatt & Scruggs doing ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown.’ I was hooked.” His father took him around to play with local musicians, and Daniel started on guitar before moving to banjo. He said that time was key and very formative to his musical development. “It was then that I realized music was something I could do as a career.”

Carolyn got her start in the same setting, albeit earlier, in her hometown of Siler City, N.C. “I started singing as a little-bitty thing in a typical country Baptist church,” she said. “I took piano on and off, and I learned to read music, and I still see the keys in my head when I play bass. Even in high school, everything I did centered around music and learning to sing properly.”

Nu-Blu released Nights in 2010, The Blue Disc in 2011, Nail By Nail in 2012, and a tenth anniversary CD appropriately titled Ten in 2013. In 2014, All The Way was released, the title-track is a Carl Jackson tune and there was a guest appearance by Rhonda Vincent. That was also the year that proved pivotal for the group when they participated in a George Jones tribute, recording “Jesus And Jones” with Sam Moore of the legendary duo Sam & Dave. “That really helped knock down some genre walls for people outside of bluegrass,” Carolyn said. “It opened a lot of doors. We got a lot of media and a lot of phone calls. We were on Imus In The Morning, Huckabee, and Ronnie Reno’s show, among other national broadcasts and interviews. Then we had ‘That’s What Makes The Bluegrass Blue,’ which was the most played song on SiriusXM’s Bluegrass Junction in February of 2015.”

As the band went full-steam ahead, they continued playing many shows outside of bluegrass venues, and they’ve played in 47 of the 48 continental states. The Rouths believe it not only expanded Nu-Blu’s base, but also helped them to become bluegrass ambassadors. “We do traditional bluegrass shows and festivals, but we also get invited to do more general music events. What’s exciting is that we’re able to take bluegrass music to a whole lot more people. We’re exposed to hundreds of thousands more people,” Daniel said. “We always have folks who come up to us and have never realized or paid attention to bluegrass and say, ‘Wow, we really liked your music.’ Then when we come back around to those places, they tell us they’ve been to a bluegrass festival or show. We’re helping to get more people into the bluegrass fold, and that’s very satisfying and part of a much bigger picture.”

Daniel said a performance at the NAMM show (a music products convention) a couple of years ago is a great example. “The pop and rock guys were right in front of the stage, and they thought it was acoustic rock,” Daniel said with a laugh. “That’s what holds true with bluegrass. People don’t get it until they see it live. They are used to large bands with lots of musicians and a front person, then they see a bluegrass band with just a few people, and they see what everybody’s doing and how it works together.”

Carolyn said that the expansion to other venues has been important to the business ledger as well. “The momentum we have created helps, and it is a business. You have to realize it’s called the ‘music business’ for a reason. It’s good to step outside bluegrass and see what other people are doing and to get the larger picture. You’ve got to be thinking about what is the next step. Adding Webster Public Relations in Nashville to our team, who don’t just represent bluegrass, has also opened doors. The music world is a small community, and there is respect and camaraderie from other genres.”

Carolyn said that she and Daniel also want to offer encouragement to other musicians. “People say you can’t make a living in bluegrass, it’s impossible. I get frustrated when I hear that. We should encourage young people who dream to do this, who want to entertain. We shouldn’t tell them ‘you need another job’ to do this. We should say, ‘You’ve got to work hard and structure your time, and learn the business.’”

While they are enjoying their exposure outside of bluegrass, Nu-Blu plans to stay true to its core and its belief that good music is good music. “A great song is a great song,” Daniel said. “We’ve got straight-up bluegrass on this album, and then we’ve got tunes like ‘Knocking On Heaven’s Door.’ On the side of our tour bus we have printed: ‘Bending the Boundaries of Bluegrass.’ We will always be a bluegrass band, but we’re kind of stretching what areas that bluegrass can exist in. We’re reaching people who didn’t or wouldn’t normally listen, and for me, that’s gold. That’s when we expand the music.”

Carolyn takes that a step further. “The heart of it is that it starts with a good song, and a good song is one you want to hear again and again. It doesn’t matter the genre if it sparks an emotion. I love where we are right now. This album started with ‘Gypsies,’ and we aren’t just singing it—it’s my life. I’m thankful everyday. It’s a great life, and a great big world with lots of stages, and I want to play as many of them as possible.”

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