A band’s formation is like a love affair. When it comes together quickly and effortlessly, it’s a sign you’re onto something special. In the case of the Belleville Outfit, the ease they share is conveyed musically through a catchy, broad-minded, light-stepping blend of gypsy swing, bluegrass, ragtime blues, and country-folk that effervesces more than a shaken Coke can.
The up-and-coming group traces its roots back to Austin institution Uncle Walt’s Band, and its generational offspring, the Deschamps Band. Formed by Marshall DesChamps Hood, nephew of Uncle Walt’s guitarist Champ Hood, they mixed Uncle Walt covers with their own Americana originals beginning in 2002, less than a year after Champ’s death.
Based in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the
DesChamps Band blew up when the teenage chums went their separate ways after high school. In the fall of 2005, Marshall moved to Austin, singer/guitarist Rob Teter headed to Loyola for college, and bassist Jeff Brown joined the military. But musical dreams die hard, and when Teter visited Austin a year later with a couple of college friends (future Belleville pianist Connor Forsyth and drummer Jonathan Konya), Marshall called new fiddling acquaintance Phoebe Hunt, and they hooked up a show.
That might have been it, but Teter received an invitation to play Merlefest in late April 2007. Calls to Hood and Hunt secured their participation, and former bassist Brown joined as well, with everyone meeting in New Orleans a week before their performances to create and rehearse music for the legendary bluegrass and country festival.
“We got a really good set together in a week. It was surprising. We just clicked,” says fiddler and vocalist Hunt, who met Marshall Hood at Austin’s monthly Ham Jams.
While the Merlefest response to their three shows was terrific, Hunt didn’t give it much consideration. “I thought, ‘Cool, I’ll just go back to Austin and resume my life, `Jonathan, Rob, and Connor` will return to school, and in the summertime we’ll do gigs.’ But then they’re like, ‘We’re moving to Austin, we’re serious,’ and suddenly everybody is giving up everything to do this. So I did, too.”
Following the footsteps of prior Merlefest sensations such as the Avett Brothers and the Duhks, the Austin sextet is leveraging the buzz. They’ve spent much of the last year on the road, and in February they released their debut LP, Wanderin’. The loose-limbed dozen song set includes the Weimar-tinged folk swing, “Don’t Take it For Granted,” jump-jazz rave “Caroline,” a rambunctious cover of Peggy Lee’s “It’s a Good Day,” and an Uncle Walt cover, “Too Far To Fall.”
For Hunt, a 23-year old Austin native, it’s an instructive lesson: “Be careful what you wish for.” After graduating from UT-Austin with a degree in History, Hunt was teaching violin at Austin Montessori School and playing with the folk trio The Hudsons. While she was happy, the time she’d spent at the 2006 Mark O’Connor Summer Strings Conference sparked an interest in swing and big-band music that only intensified with time.
“I just got bit by the bug, so I was sitting at home practicing, trying to learn songs, but not necessarily performing the songs I was learning. The Hudsons were more focused on original music,” Hunt explains. “We were playing four to five gigs a week, so I wasn’t really able to focus on the music I wanted to be learning.”
When she met her Belleville bandmates, they bolstered her confidence. “They were totally welcoming, like, ‘We’ll play whatever you like,’” Hunt recalls.
Besides contributing fiddle and backing vocals to many tracks, Hunt sings lead on the Lee cover and two originals: the torch-tinged ballad “Warm Summer’s Evening,” and the jazzy “Wonder Why,” in which she acknowledges “a disregard for knowing what I was missing/so I stopped wishing/and I wonder why I ever wondered why.” The latter song was inspired by a scene on the beach in Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums.
“It’s like a quest for oneness with the universe,” she explains. “And sort of making fun of it, because it’s kinda heavy and deep, but everything’s all the same. There’s a bunch of stars and sand, and we’re all looking for the same answer. Why wonder about it, everyone is wondering. If I stop and think too long, life will pass me by.”
She takes the same attitude about the Outfit’s success. While it’s easy to envision the success that other Merlefest buzz acts have enjoyed, Hunt doesn’t want to get ahead of herself.
“You can’t help but think about that, but it’s not going to happen overnight, no matter what,” she says. “It’s about developing your music for a long time. But if that’s what you want, it won’t happen overnight. At the same time, there’s no denying Merlefest has helped a lot.” •
The Belleville Outfit
5pm Sun, May 11
1281 Gruene Rd., New Braunfels