Revamped group eyes bigger regional presence with new disc coming out soon

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FARMINGTON — Secondhand Strings guitarist and vocalist Justin Brown likes to maintain not much has changed with his local Americana band since the late winter of 2015, when the group released its self-produced debut disc “Burdens.”

That’s especially true of the themes covered in the band’s songs, which Brown said continue to focus largely on “women and whiskey.”

But truth be known, that may be just about the only thing about Secondhand Strings that hasn’t changed over the last 16 months. The one-time acoustic duo has grown to four members, will soon put out its second album and has dramatically increased its presence throughout the Four Corners, performing extensively in southeast Utah and southwest Colorado, as well as in northwest New Mexico.

Brown acknowledged those changes and the impact they’ve had on how he perceives the group.

"When we first decided to (put out ‘Burdens’), we thought, ‘Let’s go do a demo so we can book some gigs,’” Brown said of he and his partner in the band, Harris Brogan. “Now, we’re a fairly legitimate band. We’re playing live a lot, and we bring a whole lot more energy to it. We just played a show in Dolores (Colo.) last week, and it was quite an experience. We tore it up, and people were into it from start to finish. We definitely know how to put on a show now. And it’s a diverse show — we have 20 originals, and we’re pretty select with our covers. We’re not just up there doing ‘Brown-Eyed Girl.’ This is bluegrass and folk, and we put our own spin on that.”

Secondhand Strings — which opens the Cottonwood Concert Series at the Farmington Public Library this weekend — now consists of Brown, Brogan on mandolin, guitar and vocals, Jeff Hibshman on upright bass and Reuben Gallop on banjo and guitar. Brown raved about the skills of both new members and said their integration into the group was almost seamless.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “Both those guys are really good, so it didn’t take much work. Over the winter, we didn’t play much because we were focusing on new material. We went back into the studio in March to record, and now we’re hitting on all cylinders.”

Hibschman joined the group a year ago and came with a knockout resume, Brown said, including a stint with the late rock ‘n’ roll icon Bo Diddley.

“He’s played with some legends, so it gives him some street cred,” Brown said, laughing and noting that Hibshman recently was invited onstage in Durango to jam with the members of the longtime Colorado jam band Leftover Salmon.

Gallop and Brown had known each other previously through playing in other bands, and his addition in October allowed Brogan to put aside the banjo and focus almost exclusively on the mandolin and guitar.

Secondhand Strings now has a much more full and mature sound, Brown said.

“It gives us a whole lot more different dimensions,” he said.

Those changes will be on display on the group’s new release, “Repenting in Your Sunday Best,” due out soon. Brown considers it a stark improvement over “Burdens.”

“The depth of the songwriting is more involved,” he said. “We’re written a couple we’re really proud of.”

Brown described the disc as more of a songwriter’s album than its predecessor, which had a hurried feel to it.

“We basically had a couple of songs and went into the studio and jammed ‘em out,” Brown said of the first disc. “Now, the musicianship is definitely stronger. We went into the studio knowing what to expect ... it’s just a complete album.”

The momentum the band has generated and hopes to create with the new release is being used to increase its touring footprint. Secondhand Strings now plays most of its gigs outside of Farmington, having hit locations ranging from Moab, Utah, to Dolores, Mancos and Vallecito, Colo., in recent weeks.

Brown hopes to add Albuquerque to the group’s list of regular regional stops soon, but he acknowledged there soon may come a limit to the group’s ambition.

“It’s obviously hard to go much further when you all have day jobs and kids,” he said. “But Jeff’s got a lot of musical connections, and we’re going to put the new album in (their hands) and see what happens. We don’t have any grandiose notions, but we would like to be doing more festival stuff. Next summer, we’ll definitely be a little more selective in what we do. We’re definitely turning a corner. We’re asked to do stuff on a regular basis. People are seeking us out now.”

Secondhand Strings kicks off the second season of the Cottonwood Concert Series, and this year’s lineup builds on last year’s one-show-a-month schedule. Kathleen Browning, the adult services coordinator at the library, said library officials were pleased with the response to the initial series and decided to expand it this year.

“It was a great success,” she said of the first season. “We had bigger attendance than we expected, and we’re hoping for bigger crowds this year. We have a really eclectic mix of musicians.”

The Trumpet Geezers will continue the series on June 24 with their blend of big band and swing music, while Sheldon Pickering and Friends perform smooth jazz on July 8. On July 22, Casper, a Hopi reggae artist performs, while the Durango, Colo.-based Carute Roma performs Gypsy music on Aug. 5. Seattle singer-songwriter Jill Cohn, who opened last year’s series, wraps up the season with a show on Sept. 16.

Browning said library officials chose a broad range of artists and musical styles for the series.

“One of our missions is to celebrate diversity in our county,” she said.

She said the format for the series would remain the same this year — a one-hour indoor show in the library rotunda in the afternoon, followed by an outdoor performance in the early evening under the cottonwood trees on the library’s north side. In the event of inclement weather, Browning said the outdoor shows would be moved inside to the rotunda.

“The acoustics in the rotunda are pretty awesome, so people should be prepared to come even if it’s raining,” she said.

But the shady setting in the amphitheater has a charm of its own, she said, and offers a nice complement to the indoor concerts.

“We encourage everyone to come on out and bring a picnic basket,” she said. “The adults can listen to the music while the kids can run around the periphery.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: Secondhand Strings concert leading off the Cottonwood Concert Series

When and where: 3:30 p.m. in the rotunda and 6 p.m. Friday, June 10 in the northern amphitheater at the Farmington Public Library, 2101 Farmington Ave.

Admission: Free

For more information: Visit infoway.org or call 505-566-2210.

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