The Short Story
Bill and the Belles is a Johnson City, TN-based band known for combining a stringband format with their signature harmonies, candid songwriting, and pop sensibilities. Their delightfully deadpan new album, Happy Again, is full of life, humor, and tongue-in-cheek explorations of love and loss. Bill and the Belles is Kris Truelsen on guitar, fiddler Kalia Yeagle, banjo/banjo-uke player Aidan VanSuetendael, and bassist Andrew Small. The group has a knack for saying sad things with a bit of a smirk, and anyone who’s been to one of their shows can attest that you leave feeling lighter and refreshed. This is a band that revels in the in-between: deeply engaged with the stringband tradition and eager to stretch those influences to a contemporary setting. A timeless place where Jimmie Rodgers and Phil Spector can overlap, and a driving fiddle and banjo tune makes way for a sentimental parlor song. And while Bill and the Belles’ latest chapter offers a bigger, moodier, and more decade-ambiguous sound, they maintain their status as the most refreshing stringband around.
The Longer Story
Happy Again isn’t exactly happy. But the delightfully deadpan new album from roots mainstays Bill and the Belles is full of life, humor, and tongue-in-cheek explorations of love and loss. Out May 21, 2021 on Ditty Boom Records (with distribution and promotion by Free Dirt Service Co.), Happy Again marks a new chapter for the group by featuring eleven all-original songs penned by founding member Kris Truelsen. There’s no dancing around it: this album is about his divorce. But the group has a knack for saying sad things with a bit of an ironic smirk, pairing painful topics with a sense of release and relief. Anyone who’s been to one of their shows can attest that you leave feeling lighter and refreshed. The band often jokes that their setlists appear mournful and angry, but if you don’t listen to the words, you wouldn’t know it. “One of the darkest times of my life turned out to be one of the most creative,” says Truelsen. “I realized, ‘My life is chaos. I need to write about this.’” This personal loss turned out to be a creative boon for the band. Many of the songs were cranked out in just a few months, two were even written the night before they were recorded. This raw songcraft, along with the deft production touch of Teddy Thompson, son of Linda and Richard Thompson, who encouraged using only first or second takes, gives Happy Again an emotional punch that deepens with each listen.
Bill and the Belles is Truelsen on guitar, fiddler Kalia Yeagle, bassist Andrew Small, and banjo/banjo-uke player Aidan VanSuetendael. The album is also gently supported by Nick Falk on electric guitar and percussion and Don Eanes on piano and B3 Hammond. Early fans of the band were hooked by their singing, and Happy Again continues to deliver stellar vocal trio arrangements, honed by Yeagle, that nod toward groups like the Ronettes and The Shangri-Las. The band began as a project to explore the sounds between rural and urban music, between vaudeville and down home roots, but they’ve arrived somewhere wholly their own. They revel in the in-between: deeply engaged with the stringband tradition and eager to stretch those influences to contemporary settings. Happy Again is the latest chapter of that ongoing story: what happens when a stringband from East Tennessee lays down a session at Motown. It’s a welcome evolution that feels familiar and timeless.
With all their tongue-in-cheek quips, you’d think Bill and the Belles avoids the tough stuff, however, that’s far from the truth. “Never Be Happy Again” is a laundry list of existential woes, and “People Gonna Talk'' profiles some of the frustrations of small-town living. “Make It Look Easy” is both an anthem for apathy and a proper “screw you” to those who’ve got something to say about your life choices. And of course there’s “Sobbin’ the Blues,” Truelsen’s homage to the ‘talking blues’ numbers of the past, neatly tied up with a moral-of-the-story twist. Tucked in amongst the grief and jubilation of Happy Again are some noteworthy oddballs, including two songs that began their lives as jingles on Farm and Fun Time (the band’s live variety radio show now syndicated on PBS, reaching over 20 million homes): “Bye Bye Bill” (a tale about a pale ale drinking whale) and the “The Corn Shuckin’ Song” (make of it what you will). The band presents these themes simply and playfully, inviting listeners to reframe their own burdens and look to the future. “This was one of the first times I felt like I was writing country songs like my heros that were actually from my own perspective,” says Truelsen. “I quickly realized it made sense for us to break the rules.” The group subverts expectations for a stringband, taking a page from some of the finest early country and rock songwriters that drifted happily between genres. Truelsen describes the band’s mission: “One of my ultimate goals is to write songs that are hard to classify in a certain time period. To transcend the now.”
Meet Bill and the Belles
KRIS TRUELSEN (guitar, vocal) Kris’ enthusiasm and knowledge of American roots music touches audiences internationally not just through touring with Bill and the Belles, but also through his work with WBCM Radio Bristol, a low-power FM community station and Smithsonian Affiliate serving the Appalachian Highlands region. As Radio Bristol Program Director, Kris shapes and produces all on air programming including Radio Bristol live events. Radio Bristol’s flagship show, “Farm and Fun Time,” is a monthly live radio and television program that familiarizes listeners with contemporary Appalachian culture, highlighting outreach and localism through unique content. In 2020 it began syndicating on PBS television through provider Blue Ridge PBS and airs throughout the Southeast reaching over 18 million viewers. In 2020 Kris was recognized for his efforts by the International Bluegrass Music Association, winning the coveted Industry Involvement Award. A skilled and prolific songwriter, Kris’ songs are featured throughout Bill and the Belles’ catalogue. He also has a knack for writing jingles, many of which have been recorded for corporate and nonprofit use.
KALIA YEAGLE (fiddle, vocal) Not many people teach roots music at a university full-time and perform the music professionally–Kalia is on the cutting edge of both. A deeply intuitive musician, musical ideas and connections come naturally to her, the kind of instincts that emerge from having played music since early childhood. Kalia grew up in Alaska, where long winters and strong, diverse communities have produced a music scene unlike any other. The daughter of a bluegrass and folk musician, she spent much of her childhood sleeping in her father’s bass case backstage and dancing in the dirt at small Alaskan folk festivals. Her music has always been boundary-defying, while remaining grounded in the wisdom of tradition. Kalia has been a teacher almost as long as she’s been a musician. Sharing knowledge is at the core of who she is, and she can be heard sharing her infectious love of music and craft on podcasts, in classrooms, from stages, and in casual conversation. East Tennessee State University brought Kalia on board as a full-time faculty member in order to grow their Old-Time Music program in 2018.
AIDAN VANSUETENDAEL (banjo, banjo ukulele, vocal) was born and raised in Stuart, Florida into a musical family. Irish music and culture was a large creative influence in her childhood due to her mother’s Irish heritage, and on her guitarist dad’s side, contemporary folk-rock and Americana was also in the airwaves. Everyone in the family played music, including her grandfather, a lover of classic country and Tin Pan Alley music. VanSuetendael attended Denison University on a music scholarship, and played banjo in the college’s bluegrass program. Poetry is her other creative passion beside music. She has had five publications of her poetry to date and is currently working on her first book. After graduating, she moved to Nashville, TN, where she currently resides. Nashville has proven to be an environment overflowing with inspiration and opportunity. With Bill and the Belles, she enjoys playing a fresh style of three-finger banjo fitting for the band’s unique genre: a mixture of Americana, old-time, country, and some new sound you can’t quite put three fingers on.
ANDREW SMALL (bass) is an award-winning multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, and composer who serves as the inaugural Artist-In-Residence for the Crooked Road - Virginia’s Heritage Music Trail. Originally from Eastern North Carolina, Andrew holds a master’s degree in music performance from Yale University and has performed around the world with artists including Sierra Hull, Mandolin Orange, and the North Carolina Symphony. An avid proponent of traditional music styles from the Blue Ridge region, Andrew is currently completing a Virginia Folklife Apprenticeship with master fiddler and National Heritage Award-recipient Eddie Bond of Fries, VA. In 2021, Andrew won first prize in the bluegrass category at the 29th Annual MerleFest Chris Austin Songwriting Contest. Along with his wife Ashlee Watkins, he hosts The Floyd Radio Show at the historic Floyd Country Store. In addition to his musical pursuits, Andrew studies violin making with master-luthier Joe Thrift at the Foothills Arts Center in Elkin, NC and he is learning the art of distilling from master-distiller and old time fiddler Chris Prillaman in Franklin County, VA.