I’ve written in the past a couple of times about a bluegrass band from Springfield that fairly regularly performs in the BARn at the Piney River Brewing Co. in Bucyrus.
They used to go by the name Deep Fried Squirrel, but about a year ago or so changed to Drifters Mile. As Shakespeare wrote, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Translation: No matter what they call themselves, these five guys are really, really good.
Drifters Mile (no apostrophe, it’s a mile where you find drifters, not a mile that belongs to drifters) was at the BARn again last Saturday, and once again blew away a large and appreciative crowd. And as they spent about three hours collecting cheers and applause, it was apparent that their unique brand of “newgrass” music just gets better and better.
As good as they were when I whole-heartedly began to take notice a few years ago, they’re far better now. This is a set of true musicians who have come together to head down a path of doing what they love.
And that love shows.
It starts with how “tight” they are. The vocals are bright and clean, the harmonies are spotless and every word is delivered with close attention to what’s going on in the moment. The instrumentation is delivered with that same sort of attention, and pretty much every note belongs right where it is and just as it is.
The end product is a musical machine functioning as a unit, rather than a conglomeration of pieces. It’s charming. It’s mesmerizing. And it’s just plain enjoyable.
But while the five are indeed one, any successful singular unit or any clean running machine exists because of the quality of its parts. Not surprisingly, on an individual basis, each of the five guys is more than just decent at what he does; they’re each masters of their craft.
When he’s warmed up and on a roll, banjo player, co-lead vocalist and songwriter Deakin Mooney can only be described as a one-man musical wrecking crew. His precise, growling and sometimes opera-like voice grabs a listener and won’t let go, while he deftly and wonderfully strums, picks and sometimes almost bangs on his trusted instrument.
Next to Mooney stands co-lead singer, mandolin player and songwriter David DeWitt, who hunches over his instrument and brings life to it in a way you won’t often see – anywhere. And his vocals – as I said to my wife – sound like they literally belong in the songs he sings.
The newest member of the group, DeWitt brings kind of a backwoods, laid back – but also feisty – presence to the overall package, and basically fits like a glove.
On one side of the stage is fiddle player Eric Mathewson, who makes his strings dance like a butterfly on the wind. One moment, the instrument’s sound is haunting and persistent, the next it’s playful and joyous. And when it’s time for him to join in on a harmony in a chorus, his voice becomes a catalyst that – as my wife said – brings make the band’s sound to another level.
On the other side is guitar player and vocalist Jake Norman. His efforts can be summed up with three words: “fast and smooth.”
Norman’s work never wavers; his fingers are usually moving about 100 miles and hour, but his playing sounds the way water on the surface of a lake appears when it takes on the look of glass. And when it’s his time to sing, his vocals add plenty to the package.
All the while, Dave Smith and his standup bass stay in back and create the foundation on which Drifters Mile rests. Smith is like a constant – never straying from a predestined lane. I find myself marveling at the way he often seems to slap the strings, in effect making his big, well-worn partner sound like more than one instrument.
Most of what Drifters Mile plays is original music. But without exaggeration, it’s not run-of-the-mill bar stuff. Their songs are thoughtful and creative, with plenty of attention-grabbing tempo changes, hooks and surprises. Once you’re immersed in it, their sound is one you don’t want to come out of.
While many of the tunes originate with Mooney and DeWitt, a bunch are from the vast collection penned by former Squirrel – and still dear friend – Caleb Fairchild.
The bottom line is, Drifters Mile will make a bluegrass fan out of someone who says they don’t like bluegrass.
And it’s all done on stage with one microphone. Mooney once told me the one-mic technique makes the group more of a team, as each guy must pay heed to where his cohorts are in relation to the single pick-up source.
And don’t for a minute think that Drifters Mile’s one microphone isn’t enough. It’s a high-tech piece of electronics that does a phenomenal job of bringing sound to the amplifier.
They’ve practiced for a couple of years now with one mic, and even entered one-mic contests. Again, I was reluctant at first, thinking everyone should be “plugged in.” I was wrong.
As I told Mooney last weekend, my wife Wendy and I were against the name change at first. We felt like The Squirrel was The Squirrel and going by another name just wasn’t appropriate.
But now, having witnessed the guys transform from a fine act to an even better act, we’re on board.
As I also told Mooney, they now sound like Drifters Mile and have become Drifters Mile.
“You sound more professional,” I said.
“That was kind of the idea of the name change,” Mooney said. “We wanted to get away from where we were and go where we wanted to go. We’re more polished now.”
Anyway, I now have a goal of checking out a Drifters Mile performance in a venue other than the BARn. I have no doubt it will be a great pleasure.
As I told a friend who was also at the BARn last week, it’s kind of like your favorite food; you don’t necessarily have a solid explanation for why you like it so much, you just do. That’s me and Drifters Mile’s music.
It touches me deep inside, and I really don’t care why.
Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald.