Among the many natural wonders in Montana, Wise River runs for about 30 miles through the Southwestern region of the state, cutting through the mountains and flowing into the Big Hole River. Beyond being a favorite spot for fly fishermen, it remains etched into the topography of the land itself. Two hours away in Bozeman, Kitchen Dwellers equally embody the spirit and soul of their home with a sonic palette as expansive as Montana’s vistas. The quartet—Shawn Swain [Mandolin], Torrin Daniels [banjo], Joe Funk [upright bass], and Max Davies [acoustic guitar]—twist bluegrass, folk, and rock through a kaleidoscope of homegrown stories, rich mythology, American west wanderlust, and psychedelic hues. After amassing 5 million-plus streams, selling out shows, and receiving acclaim from Huffington Post, Relix, American Songwriter, and more, the group brings audiences back to Big Sky Country on their third full-length album, Wise River, working with Cory Wong of Vulfpeck as producer.
“Since we weren’t on the road due to COVID-19, the music we wrote was different,” Max reveals. “It was more introspective. There were a lot of ties to Montana.” “For the first time, we were all home for 365 days in a row, which hasn’t happened in ten years,” adds Shawn. “We were thinking of the quieter lifestyle encapsulated in the area. That comes through.”
“In the past, our songs would touch on the physical aspects of the state or reference its history and nature,” says Torrin. “These songs are more introspective, because they come from the perspective of actually being in one place. The vibe is a little more serious—given the weirdness of the past year and the shit everyone has been dealing with. Our little corner of the world has always delt with hard winters, but the whole world felt it in 2020.”
At the same time, their music continues to resound beyond that little corner. They’ve captivated audiences at hallowed venues such as Red Rocks Amphitheatre and performed alongside everyone from Railroad Earth and Twiddle to The Infamous String Dusters in addition to playing festivals such as Northwest String Summit, WinterWonderGrass, and more. They’ve released two critically acclaimed albums—Ghost In The Bottle  and Muir Maid —and a live record, Live from the Wilma . They broke up 2020 with an EP of Pink Floyd covers entitled Reheated, Vol. 2. It was heralded by a two-night livestream concert, Live From The Cabin, beamed out to audiences from the Bridger Mountains. Additionally, they appeared at the Live From Out There virtual festival and even took over a drive-in movie theater for an in-person gig in between regular writing sessions together throughout the year.
In order to bring the new tunes to life, they recruited Cory behind the board as producer. Holing up at Creation Studios in Minneapolis, they recorded Wise River in just four days.
“Cory brought a little more orchestration,” Shawn reveals. “He helped us really think differently and evolve the sound as a band.”
On the single and title track “Wise River,” banjo brushes up against acoustic guitar as visuals of a “lonely river town where the barfly knows you best,” “the ghosts of miners,” and a place “where the snow can fall like cannonballs and lonesome wind blows bitter.”
“The town of Wise River is basically a forgotten spot on the map,” Shawn says. “It used to be a thriving place with many prosperous mines, but now it’s practically dried up. There’s a hell of a lot of melancholy. In our mind, it symbolizes the overall feeling of being in slowed-down Montana life.”
Meanwhile, “Stand At Ease” gallops along on nimbly strummed banjo and bright piano towards a chanting chorus, “I can’t stand to see what you’ve done to be free.” “That one is based on the mental health issues in the music industry coming to light over the past couple of years,” Joe reveals. “It’s about losing a lot of our friends and idols.”
“Paradise Valley” surveys the landscape as the lyrics visit the remnants of underground bunkers once occupied by a doomsday cult in the north. The finale “Their Names Are The Trees” recants another true story of tragedy in the wilderness.
“A good friend of ours is a wildland firefighter,” Shawn goes on. “He was stationed out in Oregon on the Beachie Creek Fire, which destroyed maybe three towns and killed several people. One night, they were 15 miles back from the fire line. They wondered where the fire had moved in the wind, but it overtook their camp, the entire town they were stationed in, and wiped it out. Several people didn’t make it.”
In the end, Kitchen Dwellers share timeless American stories from the heart of one of its greatest treasures.
“When you listen to Wise River, I hope you hear some of the original qualities that made us who we are, but you also recognize aspects that are new and adventurous,” Max leaves off. “If you go to a studio with a whole new batch of songs, it should never be the same as the last time. I hope you hear what it sounds like when the four of us are at home and have the space to create something together. This album is really how we sound as a band.”
When Cris Jacobs began dreaming about a follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2016 album Dust to Gold, he realized early on he’d have to do things differently this time around. His life had changed drastically since writing those songs: he’d toured extensively and attracted a legion of new, devoted fans; he’d come off the road into a world, with its divisive rhetoric and troubling headlines, he no longer recognized; and, most importantly, he’d gotten married and had his first child. Things had changed, and Jacobs had, too.
Color Where You Are is the work of an artist at an exciting new stage in his life and career, ready to use his talents to share a little beauty with the loved ones and fans who have already given so much to him. The title nods to Jacobs’ experience writing the album, which, as he puts it, he had to do “between tours, coming home, changing diapers, fixing things around the house…. You name it.” He no longer had the luxury of waiting for inspiration to strike, so he colored where he was.
“It was a new discipline for me and a new level of focus that I think brought out the best work,” he explains. “I feel like I grew up a little bit. There are people in my life who I truly care about and things in the world I feel deeply about. That really pushed me in a stronger direction and forced me to feel things on an honest level.”
Opening track “Painted Roads,” with its soulful groove and clever arrangement, is the perfect encapsulation of just how far Jacobs has come since releasing Dust to Gold. Jacobs is self-assured and confident in his soulful, infectious vocal, while his lyrical craftsmanship shows Jacobs to be a thoughtful songwriter who continuously strives to grow and evolve.
“It’s about choosing to live in the present, and see the everyday details of the world, rather than postponing living or paying attention in hopes of some distant prize or destination,” Jacobs says of “Painted Roads.” “We get so caught up in ‘success’ and ambition, and are so goal-oriented, that we sometimes lose sight of the beauty in the everyday. ‘Color where you are’ is the notion of creating beauty now, no matter the circumstance.”
“Painted Roads” was one of the first songs Jacobs and the band (who co-produced the album together) recorded for Color Where You Are, with his band mates taking Jacobs’ original Tom Petty-inspired arrangement and giving it an off-kilter, syncopated groove. For the first time, Jacobs wrote the bulk of the album’s songs in the studio, camping out at Richmond’s Montrose Studios to flesh out “germs and ideas that had been floating around” with band members Todd Herrington (bass), Dusty Ray Simmons (drums/percussion) and Jonathan Sloane (guitar).
“I booked the studio time and put a gun to my head and that sometimes works,” Jacobs says. “In this case it did. It feels like a specific time period and specific vibe and emotional space that came through in all of these songs. It was a really organic process.”
While life as a family man changed Jacobs’ perspective (and schedule), current events also had a profound impact on Jacobs’ songwriting, with commentary on social and political issues finding its way into tracks like “Afterglow” and “Under the Big Top.” Color Where You Are is a hopeful affair, though, with Jacobs employing thoughtful criticism and messages of empowerment instead of wallowing or ruminating.
“The political climate is causing a different sort of energy and angst in me that’s never been there before,” he explains. “It’s not a political album by any means, but those forces out there certainly dictated a lot of the writing on this record.”
On “Afterglow,” Jacobs searches for optimism and healing in trying times. His emotional vocal is buoyed by a passionate, swelling performance from the band, making the track one of Color Where You Are’s most poignant moments. “It’s about the hope that after the storm we are currently trying to survive in, we will see true light like never before,” Jacobs says. “That the constant threats to our foundations will cause us to examine and strengthen them, and come out the other side with stronger hearts and clearer vision. ‘There will come horses, there will come voices’ — that we will be forced to show our true hand like never before because of our dire need to defend it.”
Elsewhere, on “Under the Big Top,” Jacobs channels swampy, gritty rock influences to shine a light on narrow-mindedness and lazy thinking. Crunchy riffs and a fat bass groove make the track, despite its heady message, one of the album’s many songs you can’t help but move to.
“‘Under the Big Top’ is commentary on society’s evolution into gullible, easily distracted, lazy-mindedness,” Jacobs says. “’Pretty lights junkie like a moth to candle,’ always distracted by the brightest, loudest, biggest, rather than remembering how to seek for ourselves and find truth and love. We instead over-consume and are given every opportunity to do so. What we end up with is a circus of sorts, with tricksters and hucksters and loud mouths with no real value taking up all of our attention and ruling us, because we are too easily manipulated.”
Grooves abound on Color Where You Are, as on standout track “Rooster Coop,” which finds Jacobs and the band sniffing around the henhouse over greasy slide guitar, a deep, deep pocket and a truly funky bass line. “All I knew was that I wanted to write a song that merged country and funk,” Jacobs says of “Roostr Coop.” “We started out with the main groove of the tune and the first line that popped into my head was, ‘There’s something funky in the barnyard.’ So naturally, I wrote a song about a scandalous love tryst amongst farm animals.”
Spanning rock, folk, soul and funk and drawing from inspiration that runs the gamut from the henhouse to the White House, Color Where You Are is a kaleidoscopic portrait of Cris Jacobs as a songwriter, musician and bandleader. It’s the work of a devoted father and an empathetic member of the human race. More than that, it’s a reminder that there’s beauty to be found everywhere, if you just take a moment to color where you are.
“What am I trying to do with my music?” Jacobs muses. ? “The simple answer is this: I’m trying to connect with people. To express real-life human emotions and make people feel things. To connect my love of music with my love of writing and conjure up all of the joy and emotions that those things bring to me. To hopefully have people walk away feeling lighter or happier or more inspired to go do something after listening… I want to create a body of work that my family will be proud of one day, and to show that I had compassion to the human condition and wasn’t just a self-indulgent show off.”