A Primal Pull
Bluegrass vet Bob Amos returns to his roots
Inside the Peacham Congregational Church, the pews are gently curved so that every member of the congregation has an easy view of the pulpit — or, in this case, center stage. Bob Amos, 54, stands up there, wearing a wide-brim hat and a banjo slung over his shoulder. He taps gently on microphones as part of the sound check, while several musicians tune their instruments.
Amos is the leader of Catamount Crossing, a bluegrass band that’s about to kick off the Saturday-night showcase at the Peacham Acoustic Music Festival.
Some of Vermont’s finest and busiest bluegrass pickers are twisting tuning pegs and bending ears toward their instruments. They’re all known to fans of the Green Mountain bluegrass scene: Mike Santosusso on bass, Adam Buchwald on mandolin, Patti Casey on acoustic guitar and Freeman Corey on fiddle. Later, every one of them will take a high-wire solo or blend in with Amos’ lead vocals in a breathtaking display of bluegrass harmony singing.
The only guy from “away” is guitarist Bob Dick, Amos’ close friend and musical partner for more than 20 years. Dick and Amos, along with Mike Lantz and Ron Lynam, were in a bluegrass band called Front Range that was formed in Colorado in the late ’80s. With Amos as their lead singer and primary songwriter, Front Range traveled the world to play at clubs, theaters and bluegrass festivals for nearly 15 years. And they recorded five albums for the roots label Sugar Hill Records between 1991 and 2003. The band split up when mandolinist and tenor singer Lantz fell gravely ill.
Amos’ performance in a Peacham church is part of his return to the bluegrass fold. After touring and recording with Front Range for so many years — sometimes upward of 200 days a year — Amos took an entire year off from playing music. He moved to Vermont with his family in 2005. Lantz died soon afterward.
In Vermont, Amos worked on recovering from the death of his friend and figuring out what to do next.
“I kind of stepped away from bluegrass for a while, because it was just … I mean, to be totally honest, it was painful,” he says during a later conversation over a cup of coffee on his back porch. “Because it just reminded me of the camaraderie and what we had that was very special as a band.”
Amos decided to take things slowly. He began to set up a studio, but he wasn’t ready to put a band together or start gigging.
Then Sal DeMaio called.
“When a bluegrass musician of Bob’s caliber moves to town, you want to try to make a connection with him,” says DeMaio, a longtime resident of St. Johnsbury, real estate appraiser and bluegrass banjo player, during a recent phone call.
DeMaio, 64, was holding a weekly bluegrass jam at his office and invited Amos to sit in.
There, Amos met local pickers of all stripes, from enthusiastic novices to pros such as guitarist Colin McCaffrey, who now plays with him in Catamount Crossing.
“The jams were a great way to ease back into bluegrass,” says Amos. “It definitely contributed to the healing process.”
He met more Vermont musicians through Stark Brook Productions, the recording studio he built in his house. As he produced and engineered recordings, Amos took stock of people he wanted to play with in the future.
“Freeman Corey had been over several times recording with bands,” Amos remembers. “I loved his fiddle playing and knew that, when the time came, I would ask him to play with me.”
Amos began gigging a little. He formed a trio with McCaffrey and Patti Casey that played around Montpelier and the Mad River Valley. He also started playing and singing with his children, Sarah and Nate Amos.
At Stark Brook, Amos continued recording bands, including Big Spike and Banjo Dan and the Mid-nite Plowboys (see cover story this issue). In 2010, he wrote what he calls “singer-songwriter” material and recorded it on an album titled Wide Open Blue.
Along the way, Amos joined the board of directors of Catamount Arts, a nonprofit organization based in St. Johnsbury that promotes the arts and arts appreciation in the Northeast Kingdom.
“It looked like a great way for me to get involved,” he says.
Finally, bluegrass beckoned. Amos began hosting a new bluegrass jam at Catamount Arts. He even picked up the banjo again, which he hadn’t played in years.
After his kids went away to college in 2011, Amos spent a lot of time listening to classic bluegrass — Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and the like — as well as music that predated the genre, old-time acts such as the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Charlie Poole and J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers. He says he began to feel a “primal” pull.
“I know some people who are blues players [who] feel the same way about that. I’m sure jazz players do, too,” Amos says, “but I couldn’t stay away from it too long, so I started writing songs.”
Those songs resulted in his next album, Borrowed Time, which Amos self-released in March. Most of the musicians on it now play in Catamount Crossing. Guests such as Sarah and Nate Amos appear, as well. Bob Amos’ first new bluegrass songs in nearly 10 years range from the personal — a hymnlike ballad for his ailing mother called “Mother of Mine” — to classic bluegrass fare such as “Walking Back to Bristol,” a story about a guy who moves to the big city to make it and goes home broke instead. The big city in this fable? Burlington.
For nearly an hour in Peacham, as the summer light fades through the church windows, Catamount Crossing trade solos, harmonize and pick their way through songs from Borrowed Time. And for once, Amos isn’t about to set off on a world tour. He doesn’t have to plan time away from his family. Tonight, there’s a hot band onstage, an appreciative crowd in the room, and everyone gets to drive home after the show. Amos smiles ear to ear the entire time.
Bob Amos & Catamount Crossing play the 2nd Annual Kingdom Bluegrass Jamboree at the St. Johnsbury School Auditorium on Saturday, September 29, at 7:30 p.m. $5/10/12. Children 12 and under free. catamountarts.org, bobamos.com