What once was a curse has become a charm for the band the Devil Makes Three.
“At first, we weren’t easy to define so we had a hard time getting shows,” said Pete Bernhard, the band’s primary songwriter. Twelve years later, they’ve created a steady demand for that free-wheeling sound.
In 2002, Devil Makes Three organized in northern California, but the band’s sound was birthed in Brattleboro, a town in rural southeast Vermont. That’s where Lucia Turino, Cooper McBean and Pete Bernhard grew up. Music was part of life for two of them.
“I grew up in a family full of musicians,” Bernhard said. “Same with Cooper. His dad was in a band, his mother was in a Western swing band. Lucia was more into writing and dance. She found music in a different way.”
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They found one another in northern California, where all three had moved when they were in their early 20s. Berhnard plays guitar, Turino plays stand-up bass and McBean plays banjo and guitar.
“I’d known Cooper since middle school and Lucia since high school,” Bernhard said. “We all moved to California separately but we ended up getting together in Santa Cruz and starting the band.”
Its sound is a mix of old-time country, gospel, bluegrass, jazz and Western swing. It comes from the music McBean and Bernhard listened to growing up.
“Cooper listened to a lot of Western swing, Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys,” said Bernhard, the band’s primary songwriter. “For me it was the blues: Little Walter, Lightning Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf. I also eventually started listening to singer/songwriter stuff, like Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt.”
Initially, those diverse influences made it difficult for the band to get gigs, Bernhard said. Now it books Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, and opens for stars like Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris.
“We’re not really a bluegrass band and we’re not really a jazz band or a blues band, so we had trouble fitting into a scene,” he said. “Now, it’s completely different. Our fan base is significantly larger and the scene for this kind of music has grown significantly. We’re just more widely accepted.”
It helped that other bands who were doing similar things with old country and acoustic music were on the rise, too, such as Old Crow Medicine Show, Trampled by Turtles, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Avett Brothers.
“I think it was Lucinda Williams who once said pop-country music has taken everything scary or interesting out of country music,” he said. “And what we have left is what you hear on the radio. Old country and the blues have a lot of frightening subject matter: heartbreak, death, crime, murder ballads. People would sing about what’s happening in their lives.
“With pop country, anything deemed unsuitable is taken out and you’re left with something without the ingredients that gave the music substance. It’s stripped of all I love about old country and the blues.”
In October 2013, Devil Makes Three released “I’m A Stranger Here,” its fourth studio album and its first on New West Records, home of John Hiatt, Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle. It was produced by Buddy Miller, a New West labelmate, who also played guitar on the album. “Stranger” is full of old-timey Americana sounds and received wide praise.
From PopMatters: “From the dark, rolling early jazz and blues of opener ‘Stranger’ to the quiet, regretful country waltz of closer ‘Goodbye Old Friends,’ ‘I’m A Stranger’ crackles with verve and enthusiasm. Singer/guitarist Pete Bernhard’s wry lyrics and catchy melodies keep the songs upbeat even when the subject matter is dark.”
From the All Music Guide: “‘I’m A Stranger,’ produced in Nashville by Buddy Miller … has a warm and coherent sound to it that harnesses the band’s chaotic energy without denying it, making it arguably the trio’s best studio outing to date.”
Tonight, the band will play its biggest show to date in Kansas City when it performs at VooDoo at Harrah’s North Kansas City Casino and Hotel. Years on the road have turned it into a band known for high-energy shows.
“We are so relaxed and confident on stage,” Berhnard said. “We still play songs from way back but they’ve changed a lot. We are a much better live band. We’ve improved as musicians and learned a lot about traveling and the touring lifestyle. We’re always striving to get better and improve.”
All three members have moved — McBean to Texas, Turino and Bernhard back to Brattleboro — but they don’t spend much time apart. These days, they have no trouble getting gigs.
“We are on the road most of the time,” Bernhard said. “We don’t really follow the traditional album cycle. We just tour when we want to tour. We love playing live.”
Devil Makes Three performs tonight on the VooDoo stage at Harrah’s North Kansas City Casino and Hotel. The Cave Singers open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $17.50 at Ticketmaster.com.