fb-pixel Skip to main content

The Howlin’ Brothers take a trip through many styles

From left: Ian Craft, Ben Plasse, and Jared Green.Joshua Black Wilkins/photographer: Joshua Black Wilkins

The Howlin’ Brothers are not related by blood, but there’s something unmistakably familial about the way they play together. Their seamless chemistry sounds like it was forged when they were just knee-high kids. You can almost imagine mini versions of them with tiny fiddles, banjos, and guitars, jamming on a front porch somewhere in the South.

The real story of this rising string band out of Nashville is less dramatic. Jared Green, Ian Craft, and Ben Plasse met while studying at Ithaca College and rallied around the idea of making roots music with no borders. They meld bluegrass, the blues, country, and rock ’n’ roll in a manner that mirrors how most artists working in Americana create these days, which is to say all over the place.


“The coolest thing about us both musically and our personality types is the fact that we balance out each other really well,” says Plasse. “The things that one of us isn’t good at, the other ones are good at. None of us could do this on our own. We’re so much stronger as a unit.”

After self-releasing four albums, the Howlin’ Brothers hit their stride on last year’s “Howl.” Produced by Brendan Benson of the indie-rock band the Raconteurs, the album captured the trio in barn-burning mode, where old-timey tunes mingled with rowdy country rockers. They followed that album with “Trouble,” released last week, on which they continue to be the kind of band that plays for hours on end at a bar just for the hell of it. They’ll fit right in the cozy confines of Atwood’s Tavern in Inman Square on Sunday.

“Trouble” is the record that the Howlin’ Brothers could have made only after the breakthrough success of its predecessor, which put them on the highway for most of last year.


“Almost all of the songs were inspired while we were out on the road and the people we interacted with and the different places we saw,” Plasse says. “For me, it’s hard to write something that’s not true. Now I can sing, ‘Going across the Arizona desert’ and actually mean it.”

True enough, the album is sequenced in a way that sort of feels like a series of pit stops across the country. Banjo and fiddle tunes give way to detours into Cajun fare, country waltzes, honky-tonk heartbreakers, and bluegrass freakouts.

The trio knew from the beginning that they wanted the freedom to explore every corner of American roots music. Plasse, who spent the bulk of his childhood in Lexington when his family relocated to his grandmother’s house there, joined the lineup about three years ago, already a fan of what Green and Craft were up to. When the band’s then-bassist left, Plasse stepped in; never mind the fact that he didn’t really know how to play the instrument. He was eager.

“For me it was like getting the chance to join the Grateful Dead,” Plasse says. “They were already my favorite band. I had all their albums and knew all their songs. When they threw down the blues, it was legit blues. It wasn’t a bluegrass band playing the blues. That drew me to them. I basically stalked them for eight years before getting into the band.”

Their duties are relatively defined — Green on guitar and harmonica, Craft on fiddle and banjo, and Plasse on upright bass, and all three of them sing lead and backup vocals — but there’s room for each member to stretch and breathe.


Plasse brings his deep love of the blues into the mix, Craft has a unique approach to rhythm and groove, and Green is affectionately known as the Duke (after Ellington, the jazz master) for his intellectual prowess within the band. Together, they manage to find the sweet spot between playing from the head and the heart. For the production end, they found a kindred spirit in Benson.

“First and foremost, he’s a really great friend to us and has been a big supporter from day one,” Plasse says. “Most people would have approached our band as a traditional bluegrass band. But the cool thing with Brendan is that every song we’ve recorded with him has a vibe. There are no rules with Brendan. He’s all about the song.” (The admiration is mutual: In the press notes for “Trouble,” Benson describes the new album as “effortless artistry.”)

All three members, who are in their early 30s, had technical training at Ithaca. Plasse and Green both studied classical guitar and recording, and Craft was a classical percussionist. With a firm grip on precision, they realized they could just as easily let go of it.

“When we left Ithaca, we had a common vernacular to talk about music in, which really helps,” Plasse says. “That improves our ability to learn songs, but it doesn’t really matter what we learned in school. Music is about the heart, and if you put too much of your brain into it, it stops being music.”


James Reed can be reached at james.reed@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.