Phil Barker, vocalist and mandolin player of Town Mountain, grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, an hour and a half south of Asheville, North Carolina. He grew up in a musical family, with his grandmother, mother and sister all playing piano. He first became interested in music in high school, occasionally playing guitar.
But it wasn’t until after graduating that he found a passion for music. “I saw the Del McCoury Band at a local record store in Greenville and that was the first time I had seen a high level bluegrass band live and that was what piqued my interest in playing bluegrass,” said Barker. “From there I managed to get a cheap mandolin and just started plucking away at it and self-taught and listened to a lot of Bill Monroe early on and Sam Bush, David Grisman, those are all kind of big influences for me.”
The mandolin, an eight-stringed instrument in the lute family, plays the role of a snare drum in bluegrass music. “I was kind of drawn just to the rhythmic energy of it,” Barker said when asked how he got interested in the unique instrument. “When I saw it being played live by high-level musicians, I was just drawn to that and then it’s just got a real versatile tone, like it can go from a screaming rock ‘n’ roll solo to a real pretty tremolo, mellow sound so it has a super wide range. I just got hooked once I started playing.”
Barker joined the band in 2007, a few years after the band had gotten its start. Phil met the other members of the band in Asheville and when their mandolin player couldn’t make it on a tour, he stepped in and soon became a permanent member.
“In the early 2000s in Asheville there was a big influx of young like-minded bluegrass musicians hanging around the area. There were jams and picking parties most nights of the week so we all kind of met through that scene and they had already met and I joined in a little later,” says Barker.
From there, the band began to find success. The band has over 280,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and more than 12,000,000 streams on their rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire”.
In 2016, the band made their Grand Ole Opry debut, a dream venue for country and bluegrass musicians. “It was kind of an intimidating thing to do the first time,” said Barker when asked about the experience. “It was nice, all of our parents and families came up and everybody was there for our big Opry debut. Everybody there was super nice and encouraging. It’s been a super rewarding relationship. We’ve gone on to play it a few more times since then and every time is just as special.”
After months of being unable to tour due to the pandemic, the band is excited to be back on the road again and thanked all of their fans for the support and being willing to go through the necessary hoops to make touring safe and possible again.
“We’ve been touring all over the country for almost 15 years now. The music is definitely evolving and growing and we are as musicians and people as well. Still having a lot of fun with it. We try to focus on writing original material and playing songs that nobody else is playing. We like the attitude and stylings of original bluegrass music but we kind of stretch it and make it our own thing. We want people to be able to have a good time and dance and enjoy the music as much as we do.”
Town Mountain will be performing in Washington, D.C. at the Hamilton on October 23 at 8 p.m. Tickets and more information can be found online at https://www.townmountain.net/tour.