Over the last few years, Madison has produced a notably fertile country-music scene, featuring numerous talented artists who entertain local audiences with styles ranging from honky-tonk to bluegrass. One niche has been less well-served, though: Western swing, the playful alchemy of country, Western and jazz that came to be defined by the music of Texas-based bandleaders like Bob Wills and Milton Brown.
However, a new group, the North Country Drifters, is taking cues from many of the musical characteristics and reportorial choices of this fascinating sub-genre. The band is currently established with a monthly gig at The Old Fashioned, where they perform for free in front of loyal fans and lucky strangers.
The Drifters are led by Dan O'Brien, the multi-instrumentalist and singer whose extensive resume includes his co-founding of the Nob Hill Boys. O'Brien cuts a dashing figure in a finely tailored cowboy suit, and his charisma and vocals anchor the proceedings with sincerity and energy. O'Brien is surrounded by crack players like fiddlers Annie Chiles and Jon Vriesacker, clarinet and saxophone player Greg Smith, and steel-guitarist/accordionist Matt Nafranowicz. It is an extra-large ensemble, and it weaves a rich sonic tapestry.
The twin fiddles ring with clarity and power, and -- when joined by saxophone and accordion, as on the pulsing instrumental "Wheel Hoss" -- the band concocts a sound that reflects the rich, tangled traditions of American music, from zydeco to Aaron Copland. Crammed into the corner by the Old Fashioned's front window, the collected Drifters don't seem limited by the space. Rather, they use the close quarters to fully engage each other in the rolling grooves and interlocking melodies of their energetic performances.
The group's song choices reflect their deep love for the country-related genres of the middle decades of the 20th century, and -- although their repertoire is deep -- they display particular fondness for early pioneers like Roy Acuff and Western swing king Bob Wills. At their Old Fashioned show Thursday evening, they delivered particularly enthusiastic versions of songs by both artists (including a fireball version of Acuff's "Freight Train Blues" that featured some particularly supple falsetto from O'Brien), as well as variety of other material that ranged from Dixieland jazz to a beautifully rendered take on "Don't Fence Me In."
Even within individual songs, the band speaks to its heterogeneous roots: their version of "St. Louis Blues" veered from gypsy swing to double-time bluegrass within the span of a verse. This eclecticism is made seamless by the group's boundless energy and peerless musicianship.
With an increasing number of shows on their schedule, and a live album already recorded, the group's prospects seem comfortably ambitious. Judging by the enthusiastic response of the crowd at their latest Old Fashioned appearance, the North Country Drifters are well on their way towards establishing themselves as links in the growing chain of superior Madison-area country ensembles.