Blue Merle

Blue Merle declined an offer three years ago that most bands couldn’t refuse, and it’s paid off with a debut album that’s commanding attention with its ethereal mix of pop, country and regional Americana influences.

When frontman Lucas Reynolds took up a friend’s offer to use a Sony studio in Nashville to record demo tracks, a top label exec happened to be wandering the halls. He liked what he heard and offered the band a contract. Blue Merle quickly turned him down.

“As wild as that sounds, unfortunately it just didn’t work out,” mandolinist Beau Stapleton told Pollstar. “It was a somewhat limited contract. The developmental deal within the pop/country world ultimately wasn’t what the band was shooting for.

“On one hand, you listen to pop/country and there isn’t really anything ‘country’ left about it. But it was also flattering that they saw musicians, singing and songwriting there. They saw potential for us in that kind of pop/country world and decided, ‘Let’s create it; let’s mold it.’ But that’s not us.”

The band’s patience paid off, though Stapleton acknowledges that turning down that deal took nerves of steel. The credit, he said, goes to the circle of musicians and people in the business who befriended and mentored the band when it was just starting out, including pedal steel guitarist Bucky Baxter and songwriter Tim O’Brien.

“I guess it comes back to the mentors in Nashville,” Stapleton explained. “The people who told us, ‘Hey, make that tough decision and, if you believe in your music, don’t accept something that’s not on your own terms, especially creatively.’ In the end, it totally panned out for us, even though it was tough in that moment.”

But that early attention started a buzz and eventually brought out industry folks to the small showcases around Nashville to hear the band that turned down Sony. Among them were Creative Artists Agency’s Scott Clayton and Darin Murphy, who took the band under their wings.

“One thing I love to do as an agent is get involved early, before there’s a major label involved, because it really allows us to help the band develop and hit their own speed without the pressure of having the label calling the shots while they’re still in that development period,” Clayton told Pollstar. “This has worked out perfectly.

“Darin and I went out to see them about three years ago. We loved their sound and loved the guys; they’re just great people. So we jumped in to try to help them out,” Clayton continued. “At that point, they didn’t have a label or a real team around them yet. We took this on as a developing band project and now it’s really starting to come together.”

That’s a fair assessment. Last year, Blue Merle signed on with manager Randy Reed at Red Light Management, and scored a recording deal with Island that produced Burning In The Sun, released to much critical praise in February.

“We used Steve Harris, the producer, who produced two Dave Matthews Band records and Dave Matthews’ solo record,” Stapleton said. “We made our album in Charlottesville, Va., and the Dave Matthews Band let us stay at their band house while we recorded the record.”

The relationship with DMB doesn’t end there. Violinist Boyd Tinsley has sat in on some gigs with Blue Merle, and the band will open several shed dates for DMB later this summer.

Blue Merle will also make an appearance at Lollapalooza and, for the second time, at Bonnaroo.

Blue Merle

The band is not one that can be pigeonholed and, at first glance, its bluegrass instrumentation can be misleading. The record is very much pop, but with discernable regional influences that each member brings to the music.

“Ultimately, we all grew up on rock and pop music. That’s who we are and where we’re from,” Stapleton said. “But when we all started really getting into music, we all explored different things.

“Our drummer, William (Ellis), studied jazz and played with a lot of great Chicago blues acts before joining our band. Jason (Oettel), our bass player, also studied jazz and some classical stuff. He’s played with musicians from Sun Ra Arkestra and other great guys.

“As for me, when I started getting into music, I kind of came to the mandolin after growing up on rock music and studied a lot of old-time and bluegrass and regional music that is kind of central to the Southeast – Depression-era music,” Stapleton continued.

“Lucas grew up in the Northeast and was raised on a diverse group of songwriters, soul and blues music as well. We all love that kind of music and it seeps into our overall sound.”

Blue Merle has been compared to artists stretching from Coldplay to Jeff Buckley, much to Clayton’s chagrin.

“As much as people want to use comparisons with bands in this business

they sound like this or they sound like that – anytime you try to do this with Blue Merle, you miss the mark.

It’s such a unique sound,” Clayton said.

“We’ve had to fight the Coldplay comparisons because Lucas’ voice sounds so much like Chris Martin’s voice. But you can’t compare them to Coldplay, because it makes no sense on any other level. We’ve got a fiddle, an upright bass, a mandolin. How is that trying to be like Coldplay?”

Fans will have plenty of opportunity to find that out this summer. Blue Merle is in the midst of its first headlining tour, with several festival dates in between, and Clayton promises a West Coast tour package headlining the band later this year.