Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine-Feature Article



Hailing from the abundant bluegrass lands of North Carolina, Nu-Blu was founded in 2003. With three albums, The Grass Still Grows, Nights, and their latest release The Blu-Disc to their credit, the band is quickly making a name for themselves in the bluegrass world. Comprised of Daniel Routh (vocals/guitar), Carolyn Routh (vocals/bass), Levi Austin (vocals/banjo), and their newest member, Austin Koerner (mandolin), Nu-Blu has forged their sound in the fires of tribulation that would have ended most groups. From the two near fatal strokes suffered by Carolyn to the dissolving and subsequent reforming of their recording label, Pinecastle, they have survived the gauntlet of bad breaks and kept right on rolling. The story of how Nu-Blu formed is a tale for the Hallmark Channel. The forming of Nu-Blu is synonymous with how Daniel and Carolyn came together as a couple. Carolyn explains, “In late 2000, I had begun singing with a contemporary Christian trio. Around the same time, Daniel and I met at our local Wal-Mart where he was the grocery manager. He was playing banjo in a band with Donna Hughes at the time. One day, when Daniel was having lunch at my family’s restaurant, he mentioned that he was looking for a guitar player and I retorted that I was looking for a bass player. ‘I’ll play bass,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how, but I’ll learn,’ he replied. Daniel took me to see Lonesome River Band at the Bass Mountain Bluegrass Festival. That was the first bluegrass event I’d been to in many years. Remember, I was a rock-and-roll chick at heart. Lonesome River Band hit the stage wide open. They popped off at least four to five songs nonstop, no talking, no tuning, just straight-up hard-driving ’grass. I was blown away! I never knew bluegrass could have the kind of energy and punch that I got from rock music, but there it was. I was in love. With the realization that playing rock was going to mean late nights, smoky bars, and little to no money, I began to reconsider the logic behind a decision that neither of us felt comfortable about anymore. I asked Daniel if he thought we could put together a bluegrass band. At first, he was reluctant to agree. He says now that he wanted to be sure I was serious. Nu-Blu was up and running, well more like limping in the beginning, but you have to start somewhere. Then my health began to fail. The headaches began to get worse. Then in November they scheduled me for a MRI at a neurological clinic. Two days before the appointment I was hospitalized because I was unable to generally function due to the pain. I had lost my ability to form coherent words and the use of my right side. I was terrified!” Carolyn pauses. “Daniel was there, holding my hand, trying to calm me down, carrying me to the hospital. Early the next morning, Thanksgiving morning, lying in an ER surrounded by a team of neurologists, my blood pressure soared, and I had two strokes. My memories are sketchy and some have come back slowly over time as my brain healed. One memory that is very clear, is the first time I saw Daniel after coming to. Someone said, ‘There’s somebody here to see you,’ and when I looked towards the foot of my bed, there was Daniel. My eyes filled with tears and I wanted to reach out to him. He was my rock. He still is.” Nu-Blu’s backing musicians, Levi and Austin, are excellent musicians. But talent alone will not sustain a group. Band chemistry is a vital element in a group’s success. “Finding the right mix is something that every band struggles with. We feel that we really have something special with both Austin and Levi,” said Daniel. “As for Levi,” Daniel paused. “He helps to shape our sound in so many ways. He is an integral part of our music. His banjo playing speaks for itself, hard-driving on numbers like ‘How Do I Move On.’ He provides a smooth vocal backup on several songs. Levi joined Nu-Blu when he was only 14. Now at 19, he is a former North Carolina State Champion, as well as a first place winner in the youth bluegrass banjo competition at the 2007 Galax Old Fiddlers Convention. He also plays lead guitar on several of the slower songs we do that don’t require the banjo. He is always a vital part of vocal arranging as well as arranging new material. Many of the tracks on ‘Nights’ were engineered by him as well.” “Coming from a jazz and rock background has made Austin a perfect fit for Nu-Blu,” said Carolyn. “He really helps fill out the band’s overall sound.” Daniel agreed, “He pays attention to what else is going on instrumentation-wise and plays just what is needed—no more, no less. Koerner, at only 20, is poised to be one of the next generation’s great mandolin players.” With the untimely demise and subsequent return of Pinecastle Records, Nu-Blu found themselves on a roller coaster, label-wise. Both the band and their record, Nights, rode the waves like a buoy caught in a hurricane. “Nu-Blu has been very blessed with wonderful and supportive family, friends, and fans,” states Carolyn. “While we were devastated, me possibly the most of all, there were friends and colleagues encouraging us to pick up the pieces and go forward. We received so many calls and e-mails. It was overwhelming. “Our publicist, Penni McDaniel of Hope River Entertainment, who had already started the buzz for the Pinecastle release, told us we could do this. Since she’s one of the best in the business, we followed her advice and proceeded. Nights mailed out to radio stations and I held my breath and prayed that the DJs who received them would be kind enough to take a listen. What happened next was phenomenal. We were taping Song Of The Mountains at the Lincoln Theater (Marion, Va.) when we got the first DJ phone call. Before the day was done we had already heard from no less than five DJs via phone and e-mail. The outpouring of support has been absolutely phenomenal.” Two stellar tracks on Nights are cover versions of the Nanci Griffith song “Spin On A Red Brick Floor” and the traditional Irish instrumental “Red Haired Boy.” Says Carolyn, “Daniel and I love music, all music,” stated Carolyn. “We are constantly on the look out for new material to amp up our shows and give our listeners a taste of something different. We were browsing through some of Nanci Griffith’s back catalog when we ran across ‘Spin On A Red Brick Floor.’ We both really loved it and Daniel said it would be a great song to do. From the first time we performed it, audiences have loved it.” From a songwriting perspective, Nu-Blu managed to get a handful of the top bluegrass songsmiths in the business today to contribute. The title track Nights was written by the award-winning bluegrass singer/songwriter Donna Hughes and the songs “Lonesome Mountain” and “Try And Catch The Wind” were written by noted bluegrass and country musician/song-scribe Mark “Brink” Brinkman. “Upon review, these songs where such a perfect fit, I believed they must be included in Nights,” said Carolyn. “We were incredibly fortunate to be able to land these tunes,” Daniel interjects. “‘Nights’ was the song I sang at my grandmother’s funeral in 2007. That’s why it was important to me to record it in her memory, and why it is recorded the exact way it was played at her funeral. I feel especially lucky to have gotten ‘Lonesome Mountain.’ The first time we heard it was at the IBMA conference. Brink had already told us that we could do ‘Try And Catch The Wind’ and we didn’t want to be greedy. Some time later we needed a few more songs to round out the CD and went to his website to see if he had anything new up. There was ‘Lonesome Mountain’ We called him immediately and asked if we could record it. The moment of truth was the first time that I sent him a rough mix. Thankfully, he loved it. You always want the writer to like what you did with their song.” Nu-Blu doesn’t shy away from their Christian faith, recognized in many of their songs. As such they have found themselves on the front lines of the debate between those that believe gospel bluegrass should be considered as sub-genre of bluegrass, and those that feel that the gospel element is intrinsic to bluegrass music. “The acceptance and inclusion of gospel music on even secular bluegrass albums is part of the charm of bluegrass in general,” said Carolyn. “No other genre of music is this all inclusive. Bluegrass artists are free to record an all gospel CD, followed by an all-secular CD of traditional murder ballads if you so wish,” adds Daniel. “Gospel is at the heart of bluegrass music. The history of bluegrass music has its roots firmly ensconced in gospel music—with Celtic and British folk music mixed in as well.” Nu-Blu’s latest album, The Blu-Disc, just released on Pinecastle Records is already proving to be another success for the band, and is positively impacting the record label’s re-launch. The album includes special guests: Rob Ickes (resonator guitar), Greg Luck (fiddle), along with a guest harmony vocal performance by Christy Reid on the single “Other Woman’s Blues.” A song from little-known Nashville songwriter Kira Small, it tells the other side of the story of Dolly Parton’s famous “Jolene” from Jolene’s perspective. Since its radio release, the single and the album have already reached top ten status on numerous charts and continues to receive rave reviews. The music video for the song also adds a savory nuance to the legend. “We shot the video at the Eureka Inn in historic downtown Jonesborough, Tenn. It’s the oldest hotel in Tennessee, and we felt its historic Southern ambience was the perfect place to capture the essence of the song,” said Daniel. “There’s a haunting quality about both ‘Other Woman’s Blues’ and ‘Jolene’ and that’s the spirit we wanted to capture.” Daniel paused for a moment as if he still could sense the hotel’s hoary history and the ghosts within. “The amazing part of the whole process is that it took 12 hours of shooting over two days just to get a three and a half minute video!” Caroyn interjected, “We had no idea that it would be that exhausting.” In addition to the guest musicians, Nu-Blu also tapped the talents of some of the best songwriters in bluegrass. Tim Stafford, John Weisberger, Donna Ulisse, Larry Shell, and Becky Buller, to name just a few who appear on the album credits. The song “Family Quilt,” co-written by Jeff Walter and Deborah Berwyn, is set to be the second single released in late March. “‘Family Quilt’ has proven to be a fan favorite at our shows,” said Carolyn. “Folks are always coming up after a performance and asking, ‘What CD is that quilt song on?’” Nu-Blu have their preferred instruments for recording and performing. And like most recording artists, they signed a few endorsement deals. Carolyn plays an Eminence Bass with a Fishman Full Circle Pickup and a Fishman Pre-amp. The band also endorses D’Addario Strings, Peterson Tuners, and BlueChip Picks. Daniel plays a Martin D-28, the standard for bluegrass. “I do like a Martin D-18 in the studio sometimes. It really depends on the studio I’m at and what mics are being used. If I’m doing something for someone on a country CD, I’ll usually use my D-18. It seems to cut a little better through the drums and bass.” Austin plays a Collins mandolin, and Levi uses the old standby for the banjo, a Gibson Mastertone. Nu-Blu is prepping for a full year of touring in 2012, a trek that will take them from the Carolinas and Florida to Texas and Canada and all points across the Mid-West for good measure. Daniel and Carolyn added, “We also have a new gospel album already recorded and it will be released later this year.” That’s surely exciting news indeed. -Reprinted by permission of Bluegrass Unlimited