Bluegrass has a bloodline. Its traditions are tried and tired, written in a dialect that's just as weary as the voices of those who channel it.
Rosemount's Clint and Luke Birtzer and Rochester's Jesse and Ethan Moravec were born into this bloodline. From the moment either set of brothers picked up an instrument, they were indoctrinated with the rote customs of the Americana country.
For more than a decade, they've been prodigal stewards of the genre they inherited, playing by-the-book bluegrass as Sawtooth Bluegrass Band. Sawtooth Bluegrass Band was highly successful, and they played scads of festivals, entertaining the older crowd with their prodigal stylings, but now the brothers are adults.
They're songwriters and poets, not just channels for the notes and words of their forbears. When Clint and Jesse's older brother, Shane, left the group and took his banjo with him, they saw it as their chance to develop their own identity. Reborn as Sawtooth Brothers, they're treating their glossy coming-of-age record One More Flight like a debut album.
"It’s kind of a clean slate," says fiddlist Luke Birtzer. "Part of the reason we changed our name was to drop ‘bluegrass’ from our name, because people hear ‘bluegrass,’ and they immediately start thinking hillbilly stuff, and we didn’t want to have that connotation before people started hearing our music."
One More Flight — out Friday, February 5 — is clean, but it's far from a clean break. The Birtzer brothers' stepfather plays in nationally touring bluegrass group Monroe Crossing. He was giving lessons to Jesse and Ethan when he introduced them to his stepkids.
They started Sawtooth Bluegrass Band in 2006 — when the boys were at an average age of just 13 — going on to open for bluegrass greats like Dr. Ralph Stanley. It's a pedigree that the Sawtooth Brothers couldn't divorce themselves from completely, but One More Flight is about progression as much as it is maturation.
It's the foursome's eighth album together, but it's the first where they've written and arranged every song — no standards, no recycled choruses. They manufactured every moment to match their vision.
"There are a lot more parts that are intricately arranged, versus traditional bluegrass, which is a lot of improvisation," Luke says. "With the songs we’re doing, everything, for the most part, is planned out."
Clint, who, along with Jesse Moravec, is the band's principal songwriter, finds a deeper sense of fulfillment in performing songs the group has written. It's something that he couldn't quite get from rehashed festival fodder.
"There’s something very satisfying about performing your own songs, especially rewarding when it comes from a raw emotional place," he says. "Songs we wrote before, years ago, we just made up stories. We had no idea what it was like to have girlfriends break our hearts, we were just like ‘oh, we’re sad.’ Now, these songs come from a real place."
Clint likes to channel the flourishes and drama of classic rock. On "Blame It," he's rattled from heartbreak and channeling it into jumpy plucks of the guitar. On "On Top of the World," he lifts a chord progression right out of .38 Special to praise the recklessness of falling in love. Elsewhere, Jesse brings in his pop sensibilities.
As a fan of Top 40 country radio, his touch gives some bubblegum to the album. "Summer All the Time" sounds like it could be a Kenny Chesney cut. But it's One More Flight's final trio of songs — "I Should Be Going," "One More Flight," and "Take Me Away" — that encapsulate not only the album's arc, but also the band's journey to their current sound.
"You can see two themes with the country and city thing," Jesse says. "The whole album follows this whole transition from the country to the city and captures our journey as a band from traditional roots and moving towards a more pop sound."
That doesn't mean the album is totally devoid of the customs of bluegrass, though. On "Take Me Away," Clint yearns to "rest [his] weary bones," something that seems out of sync given that, at 23, he hasn't seen a wearying amount of the world.
But that doesn't make the borrowed sentiment any less true. Bluegrass is a culture that Sawtooth Brothers inherited, so it's theirs to own or discard as they see fit. They assert that power right out the gate on album opener "Another Cliché" — a catchy, winking yarn whose lyrics are composed entirely of popular clichés.
"We use [clichés] to our advantage because we understand what they are," Clint says, pointing to "The River and You" as an example. "You can fully realize that and use it to your advantage, or you can be hindered by the clichés. They’re a tool. You don’t try to avoid them. They can work for you if you use them in the right way."
Relying on cliché is a grounding force for the rapidly evolving quintet. Even their most bluegrass-averse songs contain a thread that traces back to the classics they learned under the tutelage of Monroe Crossing. Clint points to "On Top of the World" as a perfect example of that.
"The last line of that chorus is ‘You’ve got me sittin’ on top of the world,’" he says. "‘Sittin’ on Top of the World’ is a very traditional jam standard bluegrass song that we used to play all the time. I was like, ‘OK, I’m gonna take that and turn it into a completely not-bluegrass song, but I’m still gonna use that line because people who listen to bluegrass will catch onto it.’"
Preserving that resonance is important for Sawtooth Brothers to grow without abandoning their roots. For Clint and his bandmates, four people who've been so heavily ensconced in the tradition of bluegrass, outright discarding the genre would be jarring and dishonest.
"We’re not trying to be disingenuous," he says. "We know where we came from."
Sawtooth Brothers album-release party
With: Dead Horses, the Gentleman's Anti-Temperance League
Where: Fine Line Music Cafe
When: 7:30 p.m. Fri., Feb. 5
Tickets: $10-$15; more info here.
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