Northern Lights (Contemporary Musicians)
Image Pop-UpNorthern Lights.
Although the roots of bluegrass music tap deep into the soil of the Appalachian Mountain region, its branches have stretched over the entire United States and beyond, adapting to the varied climates wherein they eventually find themselves. Of New England-variety bluegrass, none is more popular than the music of the Boston-based band called Northern Lights. With its progressive, up tempo bluegrass salted with elements of western swing, blues, folk, Cajun, and classical music, the band's renown has spread outside of the northeast to reach even some of the more traditional bluegrass strongholds. "This phenomenal quartet of singing, picking, and songwriting talents keeps earning respect and building audiences nationwide," notes Richard D. Smith in his Bluegrass: An Informal Guide; "a true achievement for a band that was founded some degrees of latitude away from the Mason-Dixon line."
Since forming during the mid-1970s, Northern Lights has recorded several albums, and has toured extensively throughout the United States on the bluegrass festival circuit. Each of the group's three albums on Flying Fish Records (a Chicago-based label now owned by Rounder) reached the top 10 spot on countrywide bluegrass radio playlists, according to the Bluegrass Unlimited National Bluegrass Survey. Northern Lights signed with Minnesota-based Red House Records in 1996; their first Red House album, Living in the City, was released that July. The group's broad-minded approach to what constitutes "bluegrass" music, while possibly not appealing to dyed-in-the-wool bluegrass purists, has gained them a large base of younger fans who will carry an appreciation for this traditional American music into the next century.
Northern Lights is one of several popular New England-based bluegrass bandsmong them the Beacon Hill Billies, Southern Rail, and the Kennebec Valley Boyso build a strong regional following. Started by mandolinist Taylor Armerding and friends in 1975 as a local bar band called How Banks Fail, the group changed its moniker to Northern Lights the following year. Although the group disbanded a few years later, Armerding met up with a guitar enthusiast named Bill Horton in 1981, and the two decided to give Northern Lights another go.
The band was reformed with new members in 1982.
Joined by such talented young players as Californian banjoist Alison Brown during her stint at Harvard Business School, the rejuvenated band exhibited the kind of "revolving-door" membership so common to local bluegrass groups. When banjoist Mike Kropp signed on in 1984, the band's roster began to stabilize and the group finally had the chance to work on developing a unique "sound." At this point, Northern Lights began to build a strong regional following, bounding into the national spotlight for the first time in 1986 as third-place winners in the annual Kentucky Fried Chicken Best Bluegrass Band playoffs in Louisville, Kentucky. Although they were nudged out of second place by a mere teenager, Northern Lights had no cause not to be proud of their achievementhe teen that bested them was then-fifteen-year-old wunderkind Alison Krauss, a bluegrass fiddler and vocalist who has gone on to Grammy Award-winning acclaim with her band Union Station. Krauss would join Northern Lights on their first album, Take You to the Sky, in 1990.
Northern Lights Roster
Unlike country groups, where band members stand well to the back of a cowboy-hatted or big-haired singer, a bluegrass band is judged on the strength of each of its pickers as individual musicians. It's a tradition dating back to the early 1940s, when a mandolinist from Kentucky named Bill Monroe first set fire to the ballads and mountain music he had heard as a child and listeners dubbed the new sound "bluegrass." And in the case of Northern Lights, there's definitely fire in the oven. While the band's members have a vast array of musical influences between themverything from classical to rocks banjoist Mike Kropp told Fran Larkin in Acoustic Musician, "In Northern Lights, the place where we meet is bluegrass.'" The progressive edge to their sound is honed by their more sophisticated, urban backgrounds in New England, a far cry from the high hills and shady hollers of Bill Monroe country.
Mandolinist, lead vocalist, and songwriter Taylor Armerding builds his love of bluegrass on classical music rootse played piano and clarinet as a childnd on the vocal harmonizing he learned while singing in his hometown church choir. During high school Armerding got hooked on folk music and taught himself guitar; the bluegrass bug would bite several years later when he attended a Oldtime Fiddlers convention while on leave from the army in 1972. After his discharge three years later, Armerding linked up with the first incarnation of Northern Lightshe Boston-area-based How Banks Fail. He has been the main force behind the band ever since. Two of Armerding's compositions from 1990's Take You to the Sky/ "Northern Rail" and "Winterhawk"harted in Bluegrass Unlimited magazine's top ten; "Winterhawk" would go on to be a finalist for 1990's International Bluegrass Music Association Song of the Year honors.
The second half of the band's founding team, Connecticut-born Bill Henry, started flat-picking after hearing guitar genius Doc Watson work his magic on a six-string. To encourage his son's interest in music, Henry's father made his son a guitar, which Henry still uses for practice. Jazz entered Henry's musical mix during his attendance at Boston's famed Berklee School of Music, and he went on to perform with several regional jazz bands, including Boston's Hot off the Frets, and as part of the Big Apple-based Charged Particles. Henry's uniquely complex guitar work has added much to Northern Lights' sound since he joined Armerding in 1982, and his instrumental compositions, which feature strong guitar leads, have been featured on several of the band's albums.
Newer Members, Tradition, and Experience
Like many banjo pickers of his generation, Mike Kropp's life changed when he heard the music of banjoist extraordinaire Earl Scruggs: He picked up a banjo at age fifteen and has yet to put it down. Building on a base of classical and old-timey banjo techniques, including clawhammer and two-finger style, Kropp was quick to master the three-fingered Scruggs-style picking. Before joining Armerding and Henry as part of Northern Lights in mid-1984 Kropp played with Connecticut bluegrass bands Bluegrass Special and Special Delivery, and hosted a Massachusetts bluegrass radio show. A studio veteran of both sides of the mixing board, Kropp has recorded or performed with artists that include bluegrassers Peter Rowan and Vassar Clements and Carole King, David Bromberg, Don MacLean, Jose Feliciano, and Eric Weissberg. He also worked as a staff producer for Columbia Records in New York City.
It wasn't only the strong bluegrass tradition of family-based bands that made it inevitable that Jake Armerding (son of founder Taylor) would join Northern Lights: scarcely out of high school, Jake was already a seasoned veteran. Studying both classical violin and bluegrass fiddle since he was a child, the younger Armerding was winning musical awards even in middle school. And in 1991, at the age of thirteen, he won the Lowell, Massachusetts, Fiddle Contest, where he competed against fiddlers many years his senior. First appearing alongside his father and the rest of Northern Lights during a concert in Nantucket, Rhode Island, in May of 1990, Jake performed with the band on a part-time basis while finishing high school and learning Northern Lights' progressive bluegrass repertoire. He became a full-time member in November, 1992, and has since contributed several original tunes to the band's playlist.
Bassist and vocalist Jeff Horton linked up with Northern Lights in the fall of 1989. Horton was raised in a musical family, which includes a brother who is a talented and prolific songwriter. He sang throughout his high school years in Mansfield, Massachusetts, while mastering the upright bass, forming a country/bluegrass band the year of his college graduation. From 1979 to 1987 Horton played and recorded with the Rhode Island-based Neon Valley Boys; a stint with Boston's Bluegrass Special would introduce him to Northern Lights banjoist Kropp. Meanwhile, attendees at bluegrass festivals in the area would occasionally spot Horton jamming with Armerding and Henry. Horton played bass and sang lead, baritone, and tenor vocals in a local country band before returning to his bluegrass roots and joining Northern Lights.
After working with Northern Lights for five years, Horton left the band in the summer of 1994, and was replaced by fellow New Englander Chris Miles. Strongly influenced by both jazz and operais mother was a student at New York City's Metropolitan Operailes has a background in trumpet and clarinet, in addition to providing the band with a measured bass line and well-schooled vocals. In true bluegrass style, Miles honed up on the band's repertoire quickly enough to join them on stage at the 1996 Winterhawk Bluegrass Festival in New York state, where the group performed before one of the largest crowds of bluegrass aficionados in the nation. His bass playing has been the driving force behind the Northern Lights sound ever since.
Reaching out to Larger Audiences
With a membership that remains committed to furthering their collective bluegrass music accomplishments, Northern Lights has appeared at major festivals and concert venues from New England to California, and has performed on stage alongside such well-known bluegrassers asPeter Rowan, Jonathan Edwards, fiddler Vassar Clements, Dave Mallett, the Seldom Scene, the Tony Rice Unit, Tim O'Brien, the Austin Lounge Lizards, and Ranch Romance. While their success has made the group a stand-out among the many bluegrass bands that perform throughout the nation, they continue to work to perfect their sound. Leader Taylor Armerding is clearly focused on the group's goals: "I'd love to see us make better music, and I'd love to see us get a wider audience," he told Larkin. "If there's a goal, I would love for [the music we make] to get a little more recognition, for people to acknowledge that it's good music." It's a goal that the band is sure to achieve, in characteristic Northern Lights style. "Somehow you have to get five people to agree on [the band's sound]," Henry explained, to Larkin, describing the group's dynamic. "Everyone is always gracious to give something a try. Sometimes you have to scrap a little bit." "It depends on what feels comfortable," Kropp added. "I think there's a nice blend happening."
(With Alison Krauss, Peter Rowan, and Matt Glaser) Take You to the Sky, Flying Fish, 1990.
(With Vassar Clements, Glaser, and Stuart Duncan) Can't Buy Your Way, Flying Fish, 1992.
(With others) The Third Winterhawk Scholarship Album, Gordo, c. 1993.
Wrong Highway Blues, Red House Records, 1994.
Living In the City, Red House Records, 1996.
Smith, Richard D., Bluegrass: An Informal Guide, A Cappella Press (Chicago), 1995.
Acoustic Musician, January 1996; September 1996, pp. 16-20.
Bluegrass Unlimited, February 1994.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Linda Bolton, Northern Lights Management.