Meet Bill and the Belles
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 shit.’” 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.
The core of Happy Again is the foundational Bill and the Belles quartet sound featuring Truelsen on guitar, fiddler Kalia Yeagle, bassist Andrew Small, and banjo/banjo-uke player Helena Hunt, recently replaced by 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.”
KRIS TRUELSEN (guitar, vocal) was raised in the mountains of Colorado and rambled from state to state before finding his home in East Tennessee. Some achievements include critical acclaim from Rolling Stone, IBMA awards and nominations, blue ribbons from various fiddlers conventions, and receiving a Master’s Degree from ETSU in Appalachian Studies. As Programming Director at Radio Bristol, housed in the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Kris was integral in building the station from the ground up, where he continues to shape celebrated programming and oversee a highly capable team. Kris is the creator and host of the PBS television program “Farm and Fun Time” which airs in 20 million homes throughout the South.
KALIA YEAGLE’s (fiddle, vocal) expressive and versatile musicianship is quickly positioning her at the forefront of a new generation of artists. Kalia grew up in Alaska, where long winters and strong, diverse communities have produced a music scene unlike any other. As a scholar of Appalachian Studies, she studied the rich heritage of the region with special interest in early country music’s pioneering female artists as well as approaches to transcribing old-time tunes. As a faculty member in the Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Country Music Studies program at East Tennessee State University, she has the privilege of helping others love the music as much as she does.
AIDAN VANSUETENDAEL (banjo, banjo ukulele, vocal) was born and raised in South Florida into a musical family and surrounded by the musical influences of her parents; from Irish ballads to traditional country music to classic rock. Growing up, she found a love for traditional music that would lead her to study bluegrass and oldtime banjo at Denison University, a small liberal arts college in Ohio. After graduating, she moved to Nashville, TN, where she currently resides. Nashville has proven to be a wonderful setting for immersion in all kinds of traditional country music, allowing her countless opportunities to play and record around town. She is immensely thankful for the opportunities and experiences she’s found through music, and is so excited to be a part of Bill and the Belles.
ANDREW SMALL (bass) - Multi-instrumentalist Andrew Small has performed with artists ranging from Sierra Hull to the North Carolina Symphony. He holds a Master's Degree in Double Bass Performance from Yale University and has won numerous blue ribbons from fiddler's conventions around the southeast for his old-time fiddling. Originally from Eastern North Carolina, Andrew resides in Floyd, Virginia where he manages the world's largest selection of Bluegrass and old-time recordings at County Sales Records, and runs the Handmade Music School based out of the Floyd Country Store.