Chris Sartori, the bassist of the bluegrass band Twisted Pine, says the band’s success is due to the friendship they have cultivated on the road, traveling across the country in rented vans, playing shows, and enjoying good food.
The band recently completed its summer and fall tour, ending at the Moab Folk Festival in Utah, and now they’re touring the Northeast. Twisted Pine consists of Sartori, Kathleen Parks on fiddle and lead vocals, Dan Bui on mandolin, and Anh Phung on flute.
Parks and Bui met at Berklee College of Music in Boston. They started playing gigs around town and at weddings, eventually becoming regulars at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge. Sartori had just graduated from UMass Amherst when he met the two. “We started gigging together,” he says. “Then we started writing music.”
The quartet was completed in 2019 at a Folk Alliance Conference when Phung, from Toronto, started jamming with them. “She was always a friend of ours,” Sartori says. “We knew and loved her playing.” That weekend, the four hit it off. Phung’s playing and personality fit in as if she had always been there. “It was a serendipitous moment,” says Sartori.
Twisted Pine is a branch growing off “the bluegrass tree,” says Sartori. The group’s sound is rooted in the bluegrass tradition: American music born in Appalachia, combining the sound of string band music, blues, and country with traditional Irish and Scottish tunes.
But Twisted Pine incorporates elements from other musical genres, too. Sartori and Bui are both interested in R&B and funk. “As a rhythm section, we really jell,” Sartori says. On fiddle, Parks “has a really deep groove.” Phung’s flute adds a fluttering folky top line. “Anyone in the band can play anything,” Sartori says. “We’re in uncharted territory.” If he had to pick a phrase to sum up their music, he says, it might be “progressive bluegrass. The common thread is our willingness to experiment outside the box.”
While Parks is also Twisted Pine’s primary vocalist, everyone sings, adding “expression and texture,” Sartori says. Parks is the primary songwriter. “She’s prolific,” he says. “She’ll come in with either a full song or a chorus and a verse. We’ll apply the song to our arrangement styles.” Lately the band has been doing more cowriting, taking bits and pieces of their own verses and choruses and putting them together.
At Wellfleet Preservation Hall on Saturday evening, Twisted Pine will play a selection of songs from Right Now, their first album with Phung on flute, released in 2020. “We’d been working on this new sound of ours,” says Sartori. “It’s always developing, always evolving. We wanted to get it down onto a record.”
The band’s first idea was to make an extended-play recording with video accompaniment. Four songs were recorded live in the studio. After sending the takes to their record label, Signature Sounds, they were encouraged to make a full album. “Our goal was to document where we were in our lives musically, getting the gears going on this new idea that we had,” Sartori says.
The third track of Right Now is called “Papaya.” “We write about food more often than the average band,” Sartori says. But their lyrics move past the literal and into the realm of extended metaphor: “Papaya” is about “finding the right time for love,” he says.
It begins with a repetitive cascading line on mandolin. From the start, the song’s timbre is airy, a jazzy plucked bass line barely holding it down to earth. Parks sings the song’s first word — “papaya” — with a breathy tone accompanied by a frolicking flute melody.
At the first verse, Parks sings while providing her own syncopated rhythm at the frog of her bow. Bui, Sartori, and Phung add punctuating harmony with their voices during the song’s chorus. Although syncopated beats and four-part harmony fill every bit of space in the song, it’s not crowded. Rhythm and melody travel among all four instruments seamlessly.
Right Now’s eighth track is called “Don’t Come Over Tonight.” The song has always been one of Sartori’s favorites. Its beginning is sparse — bass and fiddle are plucked in unison while Parks sings the opening lines.
Things pick up about a minute in: Phung plays a rapid rhythmic line on the flute while Bui uses his pick to create a percussive beat on his mandolin. At the peak of the song, Phung has the first of two intense solos. For half a minute, she shreds on the flute. It’s jazzy, virtuosic, and effortless. Then Parks picks it up on fiddle. Using a Whammy pedal, she warps her sound until it’s alien-like.
Twisted Pine often uses gear like the Whammy pedal to experiment. “It acts as a sort of octave pedal,” Sartori says. When Parks plays a note, the pedal will duplicate the sound either an octave above or below, creating “this super thick, gnarly sound.” Phung, too, is “a pedal queen,” says Sartori. “If you see her live, there are so many effects being crossed through her sound that what you’re hearing is super psychedelic.”
It can be hard to gain traction in the touring community, Sartori says, especially while exploring and mixing genres. But the band is mentored by Jerry Douglas, an American bluegrass great. “He’s the wind in our sails,” Sartori says. Douglas can be heard on some of Right Now, and Twisted Pine has opened for Douglas’s bluegrass band. “His faith in us has been instrumental in our development and our journey,” Sartori says.
Twisted Pine is aiming for a 2024 release of its next album, a continuation of the sound cultivated in Right Now. They’ll play some of the songs at Preservation Hall on Saturday. The audience will be the “guinea pig,” Sartori says, as the band tests their latest tunes, but rest assured that the show will be a healthy mix of old and new.
Get the Gears Going
The event: A bluegrass concert with Twisted Pine
The time: Saturday, Dec. 2, 7 p.m.
The place: Wellfleet Preservation Hall, 335 Main St.
The cost: $25 at wellfleetpreservationhall.org