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Blue Merle: WXPN's February 2005 Artist To Watch

Blue Merle is a band that doesn't simply defy expectations; it renders them irrelevant. Despite its mostly acoustic instrumentation, the band is well practiced at the art of catching an audience unaware and transporting it to a place of pure rock pleasure.

It's a trick they've honed through heavy roadwork - whether opening for the likes of J.J. Cale, Badly Drawn Boy and Jem, or playing festivals ranging from Farm Aid to Bonnaroo - and perfect with their Island debut, Burning in the Sun.

Between the scruffy sweetness of Luke Reynolds' rough, expressive tenor and the orchestral richness of the band's intricate arrangements, Burning in the Sun is an album that is easy to get lost in. Produced by Stephen Harris, (U2, Dave Matthews Band, Kula Shaker), its sound is immediately inviting and disarmingly nuanced. Some songs, such as the string-drenched "Every Ship Must Sail Away" and "If I Could," are lush with harmony and emotional portent, while others - particularly the insinuatingly propulsive "Boxcar Racer" and "Either Way It Goes" - bubble over with rhythmic energy and melodic allure. Throughout, the music carries the sort of inventiveness and depth of feeling found only in the best rock songwriting. Burning in the Sun's release date is February 15, 2005.

Blue Merle was born when Reynolds met bassist Jason Oettel, and the two began to work on some of the singer/guitarist's songs. "We really connected," says Reynolds, and he wasn't the only one to feel that way. A friend working at Sony ATV studios in Nashville offered some free studio time, and while the two were cutting demos the president of Sony Publishing unexpectedly dropped by. "He offered us a production deal and a publishing deal," says Reynolds. They ultimately passed on the deal, but were amazed by the offer. "That was four months into our being a band, so it came really fast," he adds.

Despite that auspicious beginning, Blue Merle wasn't in a rush to add members. Reynolds met Beau Stapleton - a mandolin-playing disciple of Neil Young and Sonic Youth - on a trip back home to Vermont, and got on so well that he soon invited Stapleton to join the band. William Ellis, a jazz-trained drummer who had become a successful session player in Nashville, was a college buddy of Oettel's, and came on to complete the rhythm section not long afterward.

Guitar, mandolin, fiddle, upright bass and drums isn't typical rock band instrumentation, but that's turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Blue Merle. "There wasn't a lot of thought put into the instrumentation," says Reynolds. "We just met musicians we really loved playing with, and whatever they played, that was the thing that came."

"It's actually simpler to work with," says producer Harris. "It's a fresh feeling, and pleasing on the ear. You don't have to knock the listener on the head. And that's the whole thing with the band - they have subtlety, which is beyond many people these days." "Subtlety is what makes Blue Merle what it is," agrees Reynolds. "The lyrics, the melody, the musicianship - it's all there, but it's never right in your face. There's a confidence to it, and you can feel it in the music."

10 questions for Blue Merle's Luke Reynolds

OK - I found out that the band's name comes from a Led Zeppelin song lyric ("Bron Y R Stomp"), but what exactly does it mean?
It turns out that a Blue Merle is a specific coloring in a collie type of dog and that Robert Plant owned one.

Stephen Harris (who's worked with U2 and the Dave Matthews band, among many others) produced your album - what was the process? How involved was he? How far into the songs did he get, arrangement wise?
Harris was very involved in the recording process and was a very natural extension of the band which allowed us to make the music we wanted, exactly the way we heard it. It was his ability to create an environment in which we could create freely, that was so incredible.

Blue Merle

What music is in heavy rotation on your iPod right now?
Ray LaMontagne, The Beatles, The Police, Edgar Meyer, My Morning Jacket

What music is in heavy rotation in the Blue Merle tour van?
Lionel Richie, Ahmad Jamal, Patty Griffin, DJ Shadow, Wilco, Neil Young

Where's the very best place for lunch in Nashville?
For sure Bongo Java or Wild Oats, huge salads and coffee.

Blue Merle

You guys are based in Nashville, but the band is actually from all over, right? Where is everyone's hometown?
Yes, we grew up all over the place, and I think that it shows in the diversity of our individual playing styles that make the band a whole. I grew up in Cornwall, Vermont, Beau in Reno, Nevada, William in Elizabethton, Tennessee, and Jason in Hendersonville, Tennessee.

What's your favorite "guilty pleasure" television show? Be honest, now!
Well I don't really watch TV for real, but I have an issue with overplaying something good when I get my hands on it - example, I've probably watched Anchorman with Will Farrell 6 times this week at the band house.

You guys are incredibly tight on stage - what are your rehearsals like? How much "jamming" goes into your songwriting?
There's a lot of playing and rehearsing that goes into anything that we bring out in public. Most often we'll work a song up 40 different ways until it's right. Also some songs will get worked up one or two guys at a time, and that helps keep the process fresh.

Blue Merle

Name one band that you'd do almost anything to share a bill with.
Radiohead. We'll work for it.

Describe the best gig you've ever played
Probably Farm Aid this last September. I woke up and spent the morning with a bunch of farmers from all over the country in the hotel lobby drinking coffee and talking timber in the parking lot raining, spoke on the panel of artists and sponsors right after Steve Earle, and got to be a part of a truly incredible event and cause. The food was all organic, which is a rarity when you're on the road all the time and during the encore, every band came out on stage and sang "Will The Circle Be Unbroken". It was raining hard,and there were 24,000 people. I got my fingers crossed we're there next year. We want to be a part of the cause.

Website: bluemerle.com

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