Although their sound is rooted in traditional bluegrass, Mile Twelve surveys a broader landscape on their newest album, City on a Hill. All five band members bring their own influences and observations into the music, resulting in a project that feels contemporary, thoughtfully crafted, and relevant.
“Original bluegrass music, written and played by young people, is very much alive,” says band member Evan Murphy. “I hope people take away that songwriting and arranging really matter. It’s about the material and playing it in a way that feels honest. This album isn’t political in the sense that we’re beating people over the head with anything, we just tried to tell stories that feel authentic.”
The album title alludes to the idealized imagery of a shining city on a hill – a historical phrase that has often been applied to Boston, where the band got its start. Murphy adds, “We realized that many of the characters in these songs were in crisis, had been failed in some way, or were failing themselves. It’s an unintentional theme but it came out in the songwriting.”
The Mile Twelve lineup offers five of the most promising young musicians in bluegrass: David Benedict (mandolin), Catherine “BB” Bowness (banjo), Bronwyn Keith-Hynes (fiddle), Evan Murphy (guitar, lead vocals), and Nate Sabat (bass, lead vocals). All are credited as songwriters because everyone in the band helped shape the material throughout the writing and arranging process. Murphy and Sabat initiated most of the lyrical ideas for City on a Hill while Benedict wrote the instrumental track, “Rialto.”
“We all inspire each other and recognize that everyone has different strengths,” Murphy says. “What makes this band so collaborative is that everyone in the band can do something at a really high level. That’s the balance. We’re all challenging each other.”
Produced by Bryan Sutton and engineered by Ben Surratt, City on a Hill begins with a lively rendition of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Down Where the Drunkards Roll.” From there, the album explores a number of unexpected perspectives, such as a modern war veteran with PTSD (“Jericho”), a Jewish immigrant fleeing war (“Liberty”), and a man who cannot escape the stigma of the penal system (“Innocent Again”). As the album winds down, the light-hearted power waltz “Barefoot in Jail” and the ethereal, old-time dream sequence “Journey’s End” leads to the poignant “Where We Started,” a portrait of small-town life written by John Cloyd Miller.
City on a Hill follows multiple IBMA Momentum Awards, presented by the International Bluegrass Music Association to emerging bluegrass artists. Mile Twelve won the band category in 2017, shortly before releasing their debut album, Onwards. The following year, Keith-Hynes and Benedict secured IBMA Momentum Awards in instrumental categories, while the band earned two major IBMA Award nominations for Emerging Artist and Instrumental Performance of the Year in 2018.
Those kind of accomplishments were far from anyone’s minds when Murphy, Sabat, Keith-Hynes, and Bowness started crossing paths at house parties and pick-up gigs in Boston. In time, they recognized each other as regulars at a Cambridge dive bar called The Cantab Lounge during Tuesday night bluegrass jams. In 2014, they decided to start their own band. By gathering grassroots and industry support, they were well on their way when Benedict, who was living in Nashville at the time, relocated to Boston to join the band in 2016.
Bryan Sutton observes, “I’m a fan of bands who strive for a balance of being musically unique and individualized, while at the same time working to include time-honored traditions found in this music. This blend is not an easy thing to accomplish. Mile Twelve does this with well-honed and refreshingly honest songwriting, along with powerful playing, singing, and performing. Not only did I have the privilege of producing this album, but I also got a chance to know the band better. I’m impressed with how much they bring out the best in each other.”
The band takes their name from the mile marker that sits at Boston’s southern border on route 93, the city’s main artery. It’s a road sign they’ve passed countless times while heading out on tour. Through an active social media audience and radio support from terrestrial stations and Sirius XM, the band has found receptive audiences across the globe, touring all over North America as well as Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.
Asked about the band’s influences, Murphy cites Alison Krauss & Union Station for their precise arrangements and execution, the Del McCoury Band for their grit and groove, and the Punch Brothers for their genre-bending virtuosity. As for writing, Murphy praises the mastery of Gillian Welch and Jason Isbell for their ability to tell a fully-realized story within the confines of a three-minute song.
These influences shine through in City on a Hill, but at the core the album is a representation of the band’s emerging voice. “We decided to record this album as live and authentically as possible,” Murphy says. “There was no metronome, no filler material, no smoke and mirrors. It was very real, you know? We all feel that the end result is an honest statement of who we are.”