Americana music is all about its roots: in a place, in a time, in a culture. There’s a certain degree of grittiness to it; a homegrown, raw truthiness. Recently, it’s become somewhat of a trend for bands to tack on “Americana” to their ever-growing list of definitions (folk, alt-rock, indie, blues, grassroots, “other”).
But Six Mile Grove was Americana before all that. The four-man band got its start 15 years ago in little Lyle, Minnesota, and has not only managed to stick together throughout the years, but also stay true to its roots. Proof lies in their sixth album, “Secret Life in a Quiet Town,” released last week on March 20.
I caught up with Brandon Sampson, Six Mile Grove’s lead singer and guitar man, earlier this week to talk about the new album and what the 15-year mark means to him.
Fifteen years and six albums—that’s big! Are you guys going to be busy touring the next few months?
Well, it’s kind of tricky. We all have full-time jobs and families on top of playing together, so touring isn’t exactly easy. But I’ll be touring with Matthew Ryan—who changed my life in 1997 when I heard his album “May Day”—in April, promoting “Secret Life” in its acoustic form.
Changed your life…?
There are certain moments that change the direction you’ll go career-wise. Hearing that album was one. It was gritty and raw, full of touching song writing and gut-wrenching honesty. It sounded like what we could sound like.
Speaking of life-changing events, how did you get your start playing?
When I was seven, I got my hand smashed in a farm accident. My parents bought me a guitar to strengthen my fingers as I was going through physical therapy. Of course, my younger brother, Brian, threw a fit, so our parents got him a drum set and we started playing together.
So that was it, then: the moment you knew you wanted to be a musician?
When I was a junior at Luther College, my professor asked me what I was going to do with my life. I said, “I plan on being a rock star. If that doesn’t work, I’ll be a quarterback in the NFL.”
Sounds fool proof.
I know, right? Well, later that year I broke my femur, which ended my NFL dreams. I was actually pre-med at the time (I wanted to do something in the medical field ever since the accident when I was seven—I thought it was so cool how all the doctors were able to help me), and holy shit those kids were motivated. Me? Not so much. My professor told me I reminded him of a friend who makes prosthetic limbs for Mayo, and said I should check it out. I went down and hung out with him for a day, and decided that’s what I wanted to do.
Make prosthetic limbs?
Yep. I work for a small lab in Rochester called Prosthetic Laboratories. It’s like art: you get to sculpt, problem solve, help people, and at the end of the day you have something to show for your work. It keeps my mind focused on the creative process during the day, and then at night I can’t wait to get my hands on my guitar.
Tell me a little bit about “Secret Life.” What sets it apart from the other five albums you guys have put out?
Amidst all our crazy lives (in the past year, there have been four babies born and we’ve put out an album), we’ve made a commitment to keep writing better songs and perform better. What sets this apart from the last five is we’re letting melodies stand on their own more; letting the focus be more on piano and other key points. We’re still telling stories, but just in a more sharpened way, different way.
We locked ourselves up in the barn (our recording studio in Pine City) for three-to-four months and played around with a couple different ways to record each song. We’d play them fast, slow, hitch, shuffle, and then pick what felt the best. Also, we added a steel-guitar player (John Wheeler) for this album, which gives it a new dimension; turns things up a notch and draws the instruments together. It really puts a nice stamp of sincerity and color in this record.
Staying together for 15 years is pretty amazing. What’s your secret?
Well, typically it’s the lead singer and drummer with the attitude problems. Which is totally true, but Brian and I can’t go anywhere since we’re brothers.
Yeah, probably can’t get away from that one.
The reason he and I and Dezi (Wallace, bass) and Barry (Nelson, piano/keyboard) have been together for so long is that we never bash each other’s ideas. If we don’t like what someone else is thinking, we have a rule that you have to present a different idea to replace it. And 99% of the time, it works. That’s the key to success. Plus, over the years just enough good things have happened to us to keep us motivated to go to the next level.
You’re the main songwriter of the bunch. Where do you get inspiration from?
I love soundtracks, and without trying, “Secret Life” feels like a soundtrack. It tells a story, going from being rootsy to slow to back-atcha. It’s not a concept album, but sonically, it’s conceptual. Because of that, we’ve been playing it straight through for concerts.
Are there any themes that stand out?
All the songs are about things I’m familiar with: responsibilities with family, trying to keep love alive in a relationship that can get stagnant, and a couple songs about standing up for what you believe in, no matter what it is.
It’s hard to pick a favorite (of course), but I’d say it’s the last song, “For Crying Out Loud.” It talks about how things move so fast nowadays, and it’s scary to slow down—you might actually realize what’s going on around you. As someone who always has 8,000 things going on in my head, it’s my way of stepping back and saying I’m not afraid to stand still.
If you had to sum up the last 15 years, what would you say?
I think after 15 years we’re finally not afraid to be who we are. And I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Six Mile Grove will celebrate the release of “Secret Life in a Quiet Town” with a concert tomorrow night (Friday, March 30) at Aster Café. 9 p.m. $10. Listen to and download the album here: sixmilegrove.com