You can stop believing bluegrass is the music of a bygone era right now.
The genre may have deep Americana roots, yet thanks to several up-and-coming acts, it’s not stuck in its early 20th-century beginnings. Classics by the likes of Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs tell stories with far less glamour than most modern standards; nevertheless, bluegrass may be just as much alive now as it was when its founding fathers plucked and riffed their way to notoriety. The modern scene is also a lot younger than people may think, with bands like the Boston-based Pretty Saro spearheading the moment.
Named after an 18th-century traditional folk ballad, Pretty Saro is made up of four Berklee College of Music students—mandolinist Maxfield Anderson, bassist Joe Everett, guitarist Alex Formento, and fiddler Devon Gardner—aiming to usher the original musical elements of bluegrass into a newer light. Much of the inspiration for their sound comes from more contemporary artists in the scene including the Punch Brothers, Crooked Still, and the fellow Berklee band Lonely Heartstring.
“Why would you try to be a better version of Bill Monroe?” Anderson says. “Bill Monroe is always going to be the best version of Bill Monroe. … I think it’s our job, especially as younger artists, to be able to take that traditional music, find the things that we like out of it, and to put it into a more modern context. We’re not going to be writing songs about how hard our life is and working on the fields because none of us has had to live that hard-physical life, but the issues we are dealing with are 21st-century issues.”
Their fresh perspective fits, as the band’s oldest members are just 23, and formed out of Berklee’s Bluegrass Ensemble, to which the members give considerable credit for their success. Without Berklee, they agree, Pretty Saro wouldn’t have come to be.
As for a more specific origin story, theirs entails a lot of picking up and swapping members, a classic trope in the budding band narrative. Members Alex, Devon, and Max took up interest in bluegrass in the ensemble class which, much to their chagrin, has since folded due to low enrollment. In its wake, it wasn’t long before fellow former classmates reached out to each other and began playing bluegrass in their free time.
As the band became more than simply a recess endeavor, one member left, but Pretty Saro still continued to grow. Bassist Joe Everett entered the picture, and following a summer playing at the Cedar Point Amusement Park with Max, stepped in to a full-time role after a previous player fell victim to an increased course load.
“I thought the first rehearsal I was auditioning, but then we started talking about when we would rehearse again and I thought, ‘All right, I guess I’m in!’” Everett recalls.
Since cementing their key players, Pretty Saro has managed to not just infiltrate the bluegrass scene in Boston, but have also built a base throughout New England. While playing breweries, small venues, and festivals throughout the Northeast, the band found a clear sense of community within the roots music universe.
“We have played shows with great reception in Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont, and none of us are even from New England,” Everett says. “I feel like the community of roots people wants you to succeed. They know if you’re good and you put the work into it. They’ll come out and see you and they’ll buy your CD.”
Over the next few weeks, Pretty Saro will be promoting their new album, Racing Back to You. The project, which follows the theme of “staying vs leaving,” reflects the band’s goal of transferring the traditional genre into a context that is relatable to the modern listener.
Anderson, who wrote seven of the songs on the album, explained that the inspiration for the concept stemmed from the second song on the album, “Hindsight.” After a former coworker discussed how a move from Colorado to Boston had a negative impact on his music, a direct quote from the conversation stuck with him.
“He said, ‘Ever since I left my guitar in Colorado I haven’t been able to play,’ and I thought, ‘Hey, you just wrote a country song!’” Anderson says. “So as I was writing ‘Hindsight,’ this character emerged that was kind of torn between deciding to stay and their desire to just go back. And the song doesn’t talk about whether it’s a specific person. I guess you could see it as a love song, but you could also be talking about a place.”
As he and the rest of the band continued to write the album’s other tracks, they found that each song traced its overarching theme back to this character from “Hindsight,” and thus a cohesive album with a fresh universal perspective was born.
As for the next step for Pretty Saro, for now the members say that they will stay in and around Boston, but plan on doing a lot of touring and expanding their following into the smaller communities that they have already discovered.
“It’s nice to see the same people,” Formento says. “Sometimes you don’t get a bunch of fans at once, you’ve got to take it little by little and play a bunch of shows in small towns.”
“Eventually,” Anderson added, “down the road, we’ll book a show in a theater in Portland or something, hopefully. Then we can have all the small communities that are around that come together.”
Pretty Saro will play as part of Berklee Summer in the City series on 8.1 at the Street in Chestnut Hill from 6-7:30 pm. They also hold a residency at the Bebop on Boylston Street, where they play a bluegrass jam session the first two Wednesdays of every month. More info at prettysaro.com.