"Hold on. I'm in a weird place," said Zach Williams, leader of The Lone Bellow, as he lost reception while passing through a mountain range over the phone on Wednesday.
That "weird place" could also be applied to his music career at the moment. The Brooklyn Americana trio is in a transitional phase, shifting from indie darlings to the next big thing. What started as a creative outlet for Williams has become a full-fledged (and critically acclaimed) band, which resulted in the members quitting their day jobs to play Austin, Texas' annual South by Southwest festival and take up music full-time.
"It was pretty surreal, especially at the beginning. We all left our jobs to go to South by Southwest and never came back," he said. "It was a very quick transition, and we've been on the road ever since."
Williams began writing music as a way to cope with a tragic horseback riding accident that left his wife nearly paralyzed. The lyrics that came out of that time are deeply personal and revolve around the hardships they experienced. Despite the aching lyrics, the music itself is uplifting, taking elements of folk, gospel and bluegrass.
"We recorded 85 percent to 90 percent of it in three days and nights at Rockwood music hall, our favorite venue in New York," Williams said. "Leading up to it, we were listening to a lot of the Highwaymen, Jim James, Ryan Adams and also a lot of R&B — stuff with three- or four-part harmonies."
Where the band really hits its stride is in a live setting, where the impassioned shows often leave the performers sweating and breathless. The bandmates learned much of what they know about stage performance from their opening slots for musicians like The Civil Wars, Brandi Carlile and Robert Plant.
"Brandi would do this thing where at the end of every set, she'd bring us back out to sing and play-along to one of our songs," he said. "You just don't hear about that kind of stuff. We want to adopt those kinds of values when we're touring and picking openers."
Williams believes that a good performance doesn't hinge on the artists alone:
"It takes a whole room to make an evening noteworthy. It's not just the musicians — it takes the listeners, too. Sometimes, you go places and it's a rough go. Other nights, you show up and everybody's ready to lean in."
In recent years, the popularity of folk and Americana music has increased drastically, with bands like the Lumineers and Mumford and Sons dominating the charts. Where some people view it as an explosion, Williams perceives it as more of a crescendo.
"I noticed it around 2001, where all of a sudden, a bunch of my friends started listening to Ryan Adams, then M. Ward and My Morning Jacket, and then like Iron and Wine and Calexico," he said. "There's been a 10-year gantlet of more and more people listening to and performing [Americana]."
Williams thinks the genre owes some of its current popularity to the times.
"I'm sure the economy threw in some salt and pepper," he said. "When things are going really well, the overarching pop radio takes over and people listen to whatever. When things start getting really rough, you find yourself wanting to listen to something with some lyrical content and live emotion."
Despite being swept up in the zeitgeist, there's been an adjustment period for the band members, especially when meeting their heroes.
"One time we were backstage when Robert Plant and Patty Griffin walked into the room, and we were like 'Oh God!' He recognized our reaction and immediately broke the ice by making some jokes about how old he looks. He totally opened up the room, and we were like 'Man, that guy cares about people and doesn't want them to feel awkward.'"
At the end of the day, though, it's the undying adulation of fans that keeps Williams grounded.
"We started out with songs about personal situations, and now I feel as though they're almost someone else's songs. I'm honored to have that interaction with our fans."
If you go
The Lone Bellow performs at 9 p.m. Friday Nov. 15 at Baltimore Soundstage, 124 Market Place, Downtown. $15; $13 advance. ticketfly.comCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun