Despite its members converging from stylistically far reaching bands like Roots Collider, Blackened Blues, Sparx and Yarms, and Poetry For Thieves, The Younger Gang's focus is kept intact and nailed to its roots by the plunka-plunka plink and twang of its namesake's banjo. That's not to say the band has individually abandoned their roots or deny where they came from, but the quartet's musical tradition is both lovingly adhered to and rebelliously challenged. It gooses the bluegrass and old time tradition electrically and eclectically while keeping a toe in vintage waters. It's acoustic and lightly plugged in; a balance the band prides itself in. It's new and it's old ... timeless, really.
The Younger Gang keeps the torch lit all the while igniting a new one. You can call its talented members — Michelle Younger, banjo, fiddle; Ryan Yarmel, bass; Jimmy Grillo, drums; and Brad Sheffield, guitar — neo-traditionalists; or better yet, have a listen.
City Newspaper: Who started it?
Michelle Younger: I guess it's my fault. I've been playing banjo for the past five or so years. Working at Bernunzio's Uptown Music, it was kind of hard to avoid.
Bernunzio's has guitars and mandolins and ukuleles, too. Why the banjo?
Younger: I was drawn to banjo because it was something completely different than classical guitar, which I'd played before. I was drawn to the kind of music it lent itself to. I was playing old-time banjo with Winter Folk Family which was comprised of Eastman students. Then Brad and I met and started playing together.
Brad Sheffield: We met playing at a friend's festival called Stone Mill. I saw her playing with a bass player and I couldn't really believe what I was hearing. I was taken aback by the amount of rhythm and the amount of melody, basically just the amount of sound that could be produced by the banjo. I had heard it before, but it was mostly Bela Fleck, three-finger style.
Younger: And I play claw hammer style. Three-finger is mostly used in bluegrass music — it's played with the thumb, index, and middle finger. Claw hammer is associated with old time music — pre-bluegrass — Appalachian, mountain music.
Can you differentiate the two?
Younger: Old-time as it is played now is very much about the groove. Bluegrass musicians use a tune to show off their skills, and old-time musicians use their skills to show off the tune.
Ryan Yarmel: I don't think the term "old-time" came around until the 1960's or 70's.
What drew you to old-time music?
Younger: I don't know exactly. It just has a certain soul.
Sheffield: Plus, she's from Virginia.
How did drums get introduced into the equation?
Jimmy Grillo: I did sound at a bluegrass festival and it just switched the light on. I said, "I wanna play drums to this."
And old-time and bluegrass don't typically have drums.
Younger: No, they do not.
Grillo: To me it was an open palate to put all the influences I'd gained into it.
What have you heard from traditionalists in regards to your unconventional approach?
Younger: We've heard what we're doing with the genre is fantastic. We're introducing it to a new audience.
And the band doesn't claim to be purist or traditional to begin with.
Grillo: We're not traditional Appalachian mountain people. I'm from East Irondequoit. But that doesn't mean I don't have respect to the essence of folk music.
Sheffield: We all love all kinds of music. I'm still trying to get Michelle to listen to Cannonball Aderly with me. We approach this music with a deep appreciation for the tradition. But we take our own tradition in regard. Before we got together we were playing all different kinds of music. To me it's a marriage of traditions. It's been played a certain way for so long, it's got ears of its own and it's fussy.
Grillo: Led Zeppelin isn't Robert Johnson, but where do you think they got it from?
So originally your music comes from country and blues and folk.
Younger: And Irish. Especially the fiddle tunes.
Grillo: We recently discovered how an Afro beat can feel amazing in an old time tune and you'd think they'd have nothing to do with each other.
Yarmel: The banjo is from Africa.
Younger: The instrument the banjo came from is called an Akonting
More on the non-traditional front; how do you make the electric guitar work?
Grillo: It works because Brad is awesome.
Sheffield: I'm just trying to fit the electric guitar in there. My influences are more like Bill Frisell and John Scofield and bands like Radiohead. For me, it's like uncharted territory, it gives me a lot of freedom but it's also a little overwhelming because it's like starting from scratch.
That leaves a lot of room to play around, doesn't it?
Sheffield: Yeah. We experiment so much and come up with so many ideas but we'll probably throw nine out of 10 away.
Younger: At his point about 85 percent of our set is arranged traditional tunes, but with every show we're putting in more originals.
Do you write with a nod to tradition?
Yarmel: I always try to be timeless when I'm writing a song. And I hope people will enjoy this music as much as I love playing it.
Sheffield: Ryan's good at writing a tune and making it sound old and timeless because he was born old.
Younger: Even though he's the youngest in the band
Yarmel: I'm 94.