Epiphanies tend to occur at unlikely times and in peculiar places.
For guitarist and banjo player Will Mallett, that life-changing spark ignited when he was down in the dirt, crawling under a building in the backwoods of northern Maine.
A 2008 graduate of Middlebury (Vt.) College with a major in history and philosophy, after graduation Mallett found himself back home at his family’s 200-acre farm in Sebec (population 570) in Piscataquis County.
“I was doing carpentry construction,” he said. “I spent two weeks under a camp, digging trenches. I was covered in mud. Then it hit me: ‘There’s got to be something better for me than this!’ “
Mallett quit his job and headed straight to the heart of the state’s buzzing, volatile music hub in the Old Port district in Portland. He crashed at the apartment of his older brother, vocalist and guitarist Luke Mallett.
The positive karmic result of their reunion quickly morphed into the high-charged, alternative country-rock group, The Mallett Brothers Band.
“We went from the couch to the recording button,” Will said of the award-winning band that he and his brother co-founded in 2009.
Today, the six-member band’s boot-stomping brand of fast-paced vocals and innovative roots-rock riffs are bringing a burst of fresh energy to the regional music scene, taking with it a burgeoning number of enthusiastic fans from Portland to Boston, from New York City to Washington, D.C., and beyond.
“We mostly do blues chord progressions that are acoustic-guitar driven, with a lot of twangy stuff in between,” Will said.
On Friday, The Mallett Brothers will perform as part of “Big Band Syndrome” at Portland’s State Theatre. The all-ages event, which is being presented by The Fogcutters, will also include Dave Gutter, Spose, Darien Brahms, Jacob Augustine, Lyle Divinsky, Dominic Lavoie, Sly-Chi and Zach Jones.
Success wasn’t overnight, but it happened fast. As soon as the band formed, they hit music venues hard.
“At our first show in Portland, 25 people showed up. For our second show, there were 100. After that — shows sold out,” Luke said. Their self-titled 2010 album quickly followed.
Prolific talent, innovation and hard work paid off. The band won multiple awards, including a big win at the “Rockin’ Country Showdown,” a grueling, three-day battle of the bands contest sponsored by Portland radio station WTHT (99.9 The Wolf). The Mallett Brothers Band walked off with the grand prize — a rollicking $25,000.
“It’s taken a lot of weight off our shoulders we were extremely excited to take home the gold,” Luke Mallett said.
Now, the release of the band’s well-received new album, “Low-Down,” is picking up the pace — 12 new songs whose creative authority dishes out more energy, spit and polish than their popular first album. Vocals also are sharper, improving a tendency in the earlier recording to muffle delivery.
“The new album is very different from the first,” Will said.
“To start with, we’ve all been writing and playing all year before we did the live recording,” Luke explained. “It’s what we do now, what we do live and how we’re writing. It’s more focused, less of an experiment.
“It’s been fantastic. After we released it this fall and played at Port City (Music Hall in Portland), by Monday, we ended up number one on the Bull Moose (Music) top local list.
Meanwhile, the first album was holding its own on that list, at number four.
In both albums, the Mallett brothers’ songs, which they create and deliver with gusto, abound in their original brand of classic country subjects. There’s the lamentations of love; the no-fun of being down and out; the lusty thrill of revving up the ol’ F-150; the gritty toughness it takes to make it against all odds.
“They’re a Portland super-group,” Ken Bell, owner of the Portland nightclub The Big Easy and booking manager, said of the band. “They have the sound America likes. With that much talent, you want to hear more.”
In the beginning, the band had only three members: The Malletts and bass guitarist Nick Leen.
“We got together a bunch of misfits and miscreants,” Will said, half tongue-in-cheek, of band members Nate Soule (electric and acoustic guitar and mandolin), drummer Brian Higgins and dobro-playing Wally Wenzel, owner and operator of Wally World Studio in Portland.
“We’re lucky. We do everything democratically. We argue, but we’re all on the same page. The first time we had all six of us together, it was automatic. It was easy,” Luke said.
“Like it was waiting to happen,” Will added.
From the get-go, the band hitched themselves up by its bootstraps, relying on the strength of heartfelt lyrics, live performances and recording their own albums at Wenzel’s studio.
“He’s our soundman extraordinaire,” Luke said.
That brand of homespun self-reliance comes across in their new album song, “Good with the Better”: “Gotta learn how to stand up/ Gotta learn how to roll/ Gotta learn how to love/ How to make it on your own.”
Lynn Ascrizzi is a freelance writer.