relatively-chaotic history of Northern Lights began in late 1975, when the
three remaining members of a good-time bar band called How Banks Fail - Dan
Marcus, Marty Sachs, and Bob Emery - plus new recruit Taylor Armerding, decided
they were going to get a bit more serious about progressive bluegrass.
The name-game requirements were simple. Not too traditional, not at all
Southern, and not too rural. Nobody recalls exactly who came up with Northern
Lights. Probably it was banjoman Marcus, the organizer and educator. But it had
most of what they were after ... not exactly urban, but not a suggestion that
this was a band that played "Rocky Top," "Pig in a Pen" and little else.
months later, in December, the metamorphosis was complete, when the band had
its "coming out" gig, opening for Lester Flatt and the Nashville Grass at a
show for the Boston Area Friends of Bluegrass and Old-Time Country Music.
The next summer, while playing at the Berkshire Mountain Bluegrass
Festival (precursor of Winterhawk) in NY, the group was approached by Paul
Gerry, who was looking for groups to record on his home-based Revonah label.
That led to the first album, NORTHERN LIGHTS, recorded in November, 1976. It
was a clear example of the mix the group would display throughout the next 20
years. It went from the tradition of "Salt Creek" and "Wicked Path of Sin" to
pop covers of "Ramblin' Man" and "Athens County" to Bob Emery originals like
"Boards Across Your Windows" and "Delta Tide."
spring of 1977, however, Marcus had left, replaced by Richard Hand. The group
made it through the summer but dissolved in September. Armerding and Emery
almost immediately formed a new group - String Fever - with bassist Rex Waters
(an Illinois friend of Armerding, living in Cambridge to study at the New
England Conservatory), and former Monroe banjoist Steve Arkin. That unit lasted
until early 1981, when Waters returned to Illinois and Arkin moved to NYC with
a publishing firm.
It wasn't until late 1982 that Northern Lights re-formed, following a
call to Armerding from banjo prodigy Alison Brown, then a sophomore at Harvard,
who was looking to do some part-time playing. Armerding had recently met
guitarist Bill Henry, then living in Cambridge and attending the Berklee
College of Music, and the three dragged Emery out of retirement to play bass.
That group recorded the second Revonah album, BEFORE THE FIRE COMES DOWN, about
18 months later, again including Emery originals, a few pop covers, and a
couple of Brown's imaginative instrumentals.
In mid 1984 the band fragmented again when Brown graduated and moved
back to California. But Mike Kropp, a friend of Henry's from the CT/RI area,
came in as a replacement; and the group continued to play local clubs, regional
festivals, and an increasing number of arts-in-the-parks shows.
a year Northern Lights was fairly well established as the dominant progressive
band in the area. It pretty much had that niche to itself, since the other
active bands in the area (Traver Hollow, Joe Val & the New England
Bluegrass Boys, Southern Rail, White Mountain Bluegrass, Green Mountain
Bluegrass) were all traditional, while other progressives had either disbanded
(Lost in the Shuffle) or were slowing down (Neon Valley Boys).
That lineup probably peaked in late '86 when it traveled to Louisville, KY, to
finish third in the Best New Bluegrass Band competition hosted by Kentucky
Fried Chicken. By then, Emery had already announced his departure to spend more
time at his "real job" as an administrator at Boston University.
Before, or actually during Emery's departure, however, the group
launched its third recording effort, a self-produced cassette with the most
original material so far - four by Armerding, two by Emery, plus a Kropp
instrumental. The album also signaled the arrival of Oz Barron on bass, who was
playing regularly with the group by the summer of 1987.
was on the strength of that recording that the band began its move toward
national recognition. ON THE EDGE put Northern Lights on stage at the IBMA
(International Bluegrass Music Association) "World of Bluegrass" Showcases in
Owensboro, KY, where Flying Fish first expressed an interest in doing the
group's next album. Two other elements contributed to the success of that
weekend. Tony Rice was ill and unable to play at the Saturday evening Fan Fest;
and of the 20 or so bands that would have liked to take his slot, Northern
Lights got the nod. Then, minutes after the band left the stage, Peter Rowan
asked Armerding to join him for the final set of the night, which also included
Bill Keith on banjo, Mark Schatz on bass, and Jerry Douglas on dobro, with
appearances by Maura O'Connell and Roy Bookbinder. The Rowan connection
expanded during 1989 and 1990, with numerous promoter requests for Peter
Rowan/Northern Lights sets.
May, 1990, marked a major turning point in Northern Lights' career - the release
of the band's first recording for Flying Fish, TAKE YOU TO THE SKY. Two
Armerding originals, "Winterhawk" and "Northern Rail," soared to the top five
of BLUEGRASS UNLIMITED Magazine's National Bluegrass Survey within six months,
with "Northern Rail" remaining on the chart through February, 1991.
"Winterhawk" was one of the five songs nominated for "Song of the Year" by the
members of the IBMA. The three instrumentals were also originals - two by Henry
and one by Kropp. Guest fiddlers included Grammy-Award winner Alison Krauss and
Berklee String Department Chairman Matt Glaser (heard on the Ken Burns Civil
War, and more recently Lewis and Clark TV series). Peter Rowan contributed his
unique vocal style to "Winterhawk."
Vassar Clements connected
with Northern Lights in the summer of 1990, fiddling with the band at the
Rochester Bluegrass Festival (NY) and several times thereafter. The fall of
'90, the band made another personnel change, with Jeff Horton replacing Oz
Barron on bass and vocals.
In April 1991, Northern Lights received the "Outstanding Country Act" award at
the Boston Music Awards, the only bluegrass band nominated. The band also
performed at the University of Rhode Island with folk legend Jonathan Edwards,
doing both solo and joint sets, and another association was born.
Northern Lights' second recording for Flying Fish, CAN'T BUY YOUR WAY, was
released in March, 1992. The album included 8 original tunes by band members
and guest fiddlers Stuart Duncan,
Vassar Clements ,
and Matt Glaser, and spent 8 months on the National Bluegrass Survey - two
months at #3.
Taylor Armerding's son Jake joined the band full time on fiddle in
November 1992, at the tender age of 14, after two years of occasionally hopping
on stage to provide fiddle for a number or two.
In January, 1993, Northern Lights/Jonathan Edwards/The Seldom Scene sold out the
1,200-seat Sanders Theater in Cambridge, MA. This show was repeated in '94 and
'95, and in 1997 with Chesapeake, which included three former members of the
Northern Lights' third Flying Fish recording, WRONG HIGHWAY BLUES, was
released in February of 1994. This was the most eclectic album to date and
included 8 original tunes and Jake's recording debut. It spent 8 months on the
bluegrass chart and was the band's third straight album to spend time in the
TOP TEN, reaching #9.
band signed with Red House Records in the spring of 1996 and released LIVING IN
THE CITY in July. This one ran the gamut from gospel to folk to rock and
included two originals from Jake Armerding, 18 at the time.
The summer of '96 brought a couple of changes to Northern Lights. Contemporary
Christian rock bassist Chris Miles replaced Jeff Horton on bass, bringing a
more progressive sound to the band. Also that year, Jake entered Wheaton
College in Illinois, so his role in the band became more sporadic.
A career highlight occurred on June 20, 1998, when Northern Lights provided the
music for the "Car Talk" 10th Anniversary Gala at Harborlights in Boston, which
included, along with "Click & Clack" the Tappet Brothers, Dr. Joyce
Brothers, the Smothers Brothers, and the Flying Karamazov Brothers. Also
Vassar Clements reconnected
with the band, and their association continues.
In early 1999 Jake left the band to pursue other musical interests,
including recording his own album, CAGED BIRD. He graduated from Wheaton in
May, 2000, and is pursuing his own music career in Nashville. January of 2000
brought yet another personnel change. After 17 years in the band, Mike Kropp
left for business and personal reasons, and Dave Dick of the former Salamander
Crossing took over the banjo duties.
In June of 2000 the band signed with Prime CD (now
Fifty Fifty Music) ,
which released their next two albums: THREE AUGUST NIGHTS LIVE with Vassar
Clements (Aug., 2000, recorded at 2 performances), and ANOTHER SLEEPLESS NIGHT
(May, 2001). Then in June, 2002, John Daniel, who had been recording and
touring with Brooks Williams, took over the bass duties after Chris Miles left
to pursue full-time music employment in the NYC area.
June, 2002, marked the release of guitarist Bill Henry's solo CD, RED SKY, on
Bill's guest artists included Vassar Clements, Sam Bush, Tim O'Brien, Jonathan
Edwards, current and past Northern Lights' members, and several others, and
allowed Bill to explore a wide range of non-bluegrass music from celtic to
folk/pop to jazz.
In the summer of 2003, founding member Taylor Armerding decided it was
time to explore other musical avenues, such as performing more frequently with
his son in the Jake Armerding Band and also with the Vermont-based Bluegrass
Gospel Project. Former Sugarbeat lead tenor singer/guitar & mandolin
player Ben Demerath joined the group in late summer, capably filling some very