Sunday, August 14, 2005

Jim and Jennie & The Pinetops story - Newport Mercury 8/3/05 - full text

Rooted in bluegrass, grazing in other pastures

Newport Folk Festival advance
SAT., AUG. 6, Strings Stage: Jim and Jennie & The Pinetops


Jim Krewson had a bad case of nerves a few weeks ago when he was getting a bunch of his paintings and sculptures ready for a gallery showing in New York City.

The nerves suddenly vanished when he remembered that his bluegrass band, Jim and Jennie & The Pinetops, were going to be playing at this year's Dunkin' Donuts Newport Folk Fest. "It's crazy," the 37-year-old singer/guitarist said. "I mean, how many people are going to be there?"

But for Krewson - who, along with The Pinetops, has played countless bluegrass and folk festivals all over the country since the group formed in 1998 - it's not the crowd size of this particular festival that he finds daunting. It's the history.

"I know about Dylan going electric there, and I've listened to all the old Newport bluegrass recordings," he said. The Newport Folk Festival recordings, which date back to the late 1950s and early 1960s, include the likes of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and Jim and Jesse, all key influences for the Pinetops.

Krewson met guitarist and mandolin player Jennie Benford in New York City in the late 1990s and discovered they shared a mutual love of bluegrass music. Krewson was a punk rocker who got hooked on the genre while digging through his father's record collection. Benford had grown up in a family of bluegrass enthusiasts. The two moved to the Northampton, Mass., area and formed Jim and Jennie & The Pine Barons. Banjo player Brad Hutchison, upright bass fiddle player Brendan Skwire (a former Newporter and 1989 Rogers High School graduate who had played bass in the RI heavy metal band Wicked Bitch), and fiddle player Chris DiPinto completed the Barons' lineup. After releasing their first studio album, a self-titled disc on the Phovsho Records label, a similarly named group got wind of their name and forced them to change Pine Barons to Pinetops.

The band relocated to Philadelphia, but for several years could have just as easily called their 1986 Chevy Jamboree RV home, "shlepping it" on the road, as Krewson put it, and plying their traditional sound on a growing fan base. DiPinto and Skwire eventually left the fold. Today, the Pinetops are a four-piece band with bass player Matt Downing rounding out the group.

With Krewson living in Hudson, NY, Downing living in western Massachusetts, and Benford and Hutchison (who are a couple) living in North Carolina, the Pinetops are not as active a band as they had been, but Krewson said they have reached "a comfortable point" and are still having fun making music together. Last April, they released their fourth studio CD, "Rivers Roll On By," on the prominent roots label Bloodshot Records.

"We're slowing down the band but moving up label-wise," he said. "Everybody knows (Bloodshot) and they have their shit together."

While the latest album is rooted in bluegrass, fans familiar with their earlier material may notice the band pushing the bounds of the genre as well. Like their first two records, there is an ample helping of traditionals and covers of their forebearers - this time, a pair of Don Reno tunes - but they leave plenty of room for originals as well, with Benford's creations taking a particularly somber, singer-songwriter-styled turn. They also throw drums, electric guitar, and banjocaster (an instrument capable of a variety of electrified guitar and banjo sounds that Hutchison has been having fun with lately) into the mix, all elements that would be verboten on a pure bluegrass record.

"We just wanted to not limit ourselves to the genre," Krewson said, noting that the band was beginning to find the devotion to pure bluegrass somewhat restrictive. "If the song calls for drums or calls for electric guitar, f*** it. I think we excel when we're being true to ourselves and not trying to fit into the (bluegrass) mold."


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